Species

Icon of Africa

Giraffe male and two calves
Giraffe male and two calves
Giraffes are known as charismatic, gentle, and unique beings, who are in dire need of our help. There are currently nine recognized subspecies of giraffes, who are an imperative biological asset, helping to maintain and modify the landscape for themselves and other species who share their environment, acting as an important umbrella species. | Photo: Julian Fennessy | Link | Giraffe, Conservation, Species, Endangered, Animal, Baby,

Giraffes: charismatic, gentle, and unique

The clear sky is a sapphire blue with white clouds painted across. The lush savannah is replete with green grass, and tall Acacia trees. Resting next to the towering Acacia trees are the 'most iconic species of Africa, if not the world,' the giraffe, observes Dr. Julian Fennessy, Executive Director and Conservation Scientist and Trustee of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF), with the vision for a sustainable future, where all giraffe populations are protected and secure in the wild.

Giraffes are known as charismatic, gentle, and unique beings, who are in dire need of our help. As Dr. Fennessy continues, there are currently nine recognized subspecies of giraffes, who are an imperative biological asset, living in areas of 'extremely valuable ecological changers,' helping to maintain and modify the landscape for themselves and other species who share their environment, acting as an important umbrella species.

As humans have unique fingerprints, each giraffe has a unique coat to that individual. The GCF confirms, with their Rothschild's Giraffe Project (RGP), which seeks to attain a better understanding of Rothschild's giraffe numbers in the only remaining natural habitat (Murchison Fall National Park, Uganda), by developing an identification catalogue for each population, allowing individual recognition through each individuals unique coat pattern, or pelage, which does not change over time. The aspiration of the project is to create an accurate census, ascertaining an in-depth analysis of social behavior, grouping, and preferential association between individuals. The Rothschild's giraffe 'is one of the most endangered (sub)species of giraffe, and of any species, on the planet,' with an estimate of approximately 1,100 individuals remaining in the wild, recently listed as 'endangered' by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN, with the mission to encourage and assist global societies to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature) Red List, based on GCF research.

As the GCF describes, the patches on the giraffe are for camouflage, but underneath each patch exists a sophisticated system of blood vessels; surrounding each patch is a large blood vessel which branches off into smaller vessels underneath the patch. The giraffe sends blood through the small branches into the middle of the patch to release heat through the system, as each patch acts as 'thermal window' to release body heat; the larger the neck of the giraffe, the greater surface area for the heat to be released. As the giraffe is celebrated for being the world's tallest animal with a long neck, perhaps it is the evolution of the body which allows the giraffe to remain cool under the African sun, which could be 'one of the reasons for the giraffe's extraordinary neck.' The West African, or Niger, giraffe is 'strikingly light in appearance with tan coloured, rectangular spots set amongst thick creamy lines.'

The Niger government and the IUCN Species Survival Commission Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group (IUCN SSC GOSG) considers the West African giraffe to be the most endangered giraffe subspecies in Africa, listed in the IUCN Red List in 2008, as 'endangered,' in need of 'high conservation priority.' The West African giraffe is protected by the Niger government, as 'possibly the world's rarest (sub)species.' Dr. Fennessy confirms, 'These are the last remaining giraffe in all West Africa.'

The West African giraffe population lives in and amongst communities, with their core area approximately 60 kilometers east of Niamey, the capital of Niger. The West African giraffe often seasonally uses different areas, moving between the Tiger Bush area of the Koure Plateau, and further east towards the riparian forests of the Dallol Bosso. The West African giraffe are limited to Niger, with numbers less than 350 individuals; the population was as low as 50 individuals in the mid-1990s. The land which the giraffe lives on is communal land, not a protected area, and no other wildlife currently shares this land.

Ongoing research on all giraffe populations across Africa has yielded that the West African giraffe may actually be a distinct species, rather than a subspecies. Dr. Fennessy explains, currently, the West African giraffe (who live in Niger) is considered as a distinct subspecies, but ongoing taxonomy and genetic research has yielded something different. The fact that the West African giraffe are genetically different, due to mitochondrial DNA, from other giraffe populations in Africa, 'from a biodiversity perspective they are important to maintain and keep as unique.' The giraffes do not naturally interbreed in the wild; since they are genetically unique, conserving their small population is crucial in managing biodiversity.

Dr. Fennessy continues, the mitochondrial DNA of the West African giraffe is genetically distinct from others in Africa, having different haplotypes (a group of alleles or different genes on a single chromosome that are closely enough linked to be inherited usually as a unit, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary) than other giraffe, citing 'Extensive Population Genetic Structure of Giraffe,' (Brown et al, 2007). The study suggests that the groups of giraffes are reproductively isolated, therefore constituting separate lineages, further supported by mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA)-based coalescence analysis, suggesting independent gene pools, where 'many of these species appear to include multiple distinct population units that are genetically differentiated.' The study asserts that 'despite a high capacity for dispersal, the giraffe exhibits extensive population genetic structure in both mitochondrial and nuclear DNA markers' indicat[ing] that neighbouring subspecies as well as those that are geographically separated are essentially reproductively isolated, suggesting that some might represent distinct species rather than a single polytypic form.' In addition, the near absence of hybrids between parapatric subspecies (speciation as a result of two diverging populations, potentially coming into contact with one another in a given area), 'suggest[s] that the giraffe might represent more than one species.'

'Mitochondrial DNA Variability in Giraffa Camelopardalis: Consequences for Taxonomy, Phylogeography, and Conservation of Giraffes in West and Central Africa,' (Hassanin et al, 2007) concluded that the West African giraffes were distinct (genetically assigned to the subspecies, peralta), where the subspecies, peralta, 'contains only the Niger giraffes.' A phylogenetic (the study of the evolution of a genetically related group of organisms as distinguished from the development of the individual organism, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary) analysis was performed on the 12 identified haplotypes; three haplotypes were found for the subspecies G. c. peralta: wild giraffes of Niger, three wild giraffes of northern Cameroon, and giraffes residing in the Vincennes zoo (used for this study).

The study found that the subspecies peralta is polypheletic (relating to, or being a taxonomic group which includes members as, genera or species, from different ancestral lineages, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary), where the Niger giraffe is not grouped with other giraffe from Cameroon; rather, found to be more closely related to the giraffes of East Africa (the subspecies, rothschildi and reticulata), than that of central Africa. The genetic study on the mtDNA yielded two conclusions: giraffes of western and central Africa belong to two different subspecies, peralta (living in the southwestern region of Niger) and antiquorum (all populations living in northern Cameroon, southern Chad, north of the Central African Republic, and southwestern and central Sudan); and the giraffes in the Vincennes zoo, who were initially referred to as G. c. peralta, belong to the subspecies antiquorum. The implication from these findings is that the subspecies peralta is only represented in Niger. No West African giraffe (peralta) exists in European zoos, and no reintroduction program could be conducted to address their conservation, concluding with a recommendation for 'urgent and major measures [to] be taken to protect the last giraffes of West Africa.'

GCF continues, recent studies have found that the West African giraffe does not survive outside of Niger, which includes captive populations. Dr. Fennessy attributes poaching and illegal hunting which has resulted in the West African giraffe being killed in all other range States. The primary reason for poaching is for the meat; a large bull weighing over one ton can provide food which could feed a small army. In current and historic war areas (northern Kenya, the Democratic of Congo, Chad, the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, among other regions), can use this bushmeat, which dramatically reduces the amount of hunting (and the energy exerted to hunt) necessary to feed their armies. Giraffe are also poached for their striking skins to make shoes, drums, and beds, to be sold to international markets; tendons are used for string and various medicinal uses. As GCF observes, despite the fact that the giraffe is protected by law, poaching still remains a threat, as cases are reported each year.

As GCF continues, threats West African giraffes face are competition for resources, where during the past 30 years, the giraffe habitat, particularly the 'tiger bush,' has undergone severe reduction and fragmentation. Due to the result of high human population, cultivation of land is increasing at the detriment of giraffe habitat, in addition to the increased grazing from the livestock owned by the local people, who are sedentary farmers. The availability of food resources for the giraffe diminishes as with the increase of livestock grazing. A growing concern is the damage giraffes are causing to the farmers crops, as the once peaceful co-existence between the local people and giraffes is threatened. The co-existence can only continue if 'alternate incentives for the community can be developed,' such as eco-tourism, which would help to supplement the livelihoods of the local people. Dr. Fennessy observes, giraffes are 'aesthetically pleasing for tourists coming to visit them and provide tourism money for [both private and public sector] communities.' In contributing to wildlife conservation, a country's economy is boosted by the preservation of their wildlife tourism industry, also providing employment opportunities for the local people.

As unimaginable it may be, we are facing the fact that the sun will rise and set on the African savannahs, with no giraffes resting underneath, or eating off of, the Acacia trees. As GCF states, giraffe populations have suffered a large decline within the past ten years, estimating some populations experiencing an 80 percent decline from that of ten years ago, and over 40 percent across the entire continent. Although the savannahs of Africa seem so distant, we can all help, whether raising awareness, donating for giraffe conservation, or participating in World Giraffe Day.

June 21, 2014 will be the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. In celebration of the tallest animal, the first ever World Giraffe Day will be celebrated around the world on this day. As Dr. Fennessy explains, World Giraffe Day is a GCF initiative developed to create awareness about giraffe conservation and the threats they face, as well as sharing information and raising funds to save the giraffes in the wild: http://worldgiraffeday.org/

Dr. Fennessy suggests sharing information available on the GCF website, or perhaps donating to GCF or its global partners, as all the funds do directly towards saving giraffes in the wild, including a symbolic adoption program for the giraffes.

GCF will be launching Giraffe Spotter, on June 19, 2014, which gives everyone the opportunity to become 'citizen scientists,' with hopes of people becoming more engaged in conservation: www.giraffespotter.org.

As Dr. Fennessy stresses, 'Giraffe are threatened! Their numbers are plummeting in the wild and we need to save them in the wild now before it is too late!' To learn more, please visit their official website.

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 12:04 PM EDT | More details

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