WORLD GIRAFFE DAY 2019
World Giraffe Day, celebrated each year on June 21st, is a day to raise awareness of the uniqueness of giraffe as a species and to learn about their threats & conservation challenges. For all of us at Wild Tomorrow Fund, it’s also a wonderful reason to celebrate our resident giraffe at our Ukuwela Conservancy in South Africa #worldgiraffeday.
Giraffe with their long-necks and lanky gait have captivated humans for thousands of years. Rock carvings in the Sahara Desert in northern Niger, estimated to be 9,000 years old, represent the earliest recorded human association with giraffe. We celebrate them in our art, our stories and children’s books and yet their conservation has been overlooked in relation to other iconic and threatened species that more regularly hit the headlines.
This is why the disappearance of giraffe from African landscapes has been termed the ‘silent extinction’. According to a 2015 report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), wild giraffe numbers have dropped from an estimated 155,000 in 1985 to 97,000 in 2015 representing a population decline of more than 30% in just fifteen years (three giraffe generations). It is a lethal combination of habitat loss, poaching, and the wildlife trade that has led to a collapse in the overall giraffe population across Africa.
Giraffe as a species are not as well understood or studied and there are still many mysteries yet to be unraveled about them. Science and technology have very recently confirmed that giraffe are actually four distinct species. Thanks to work by the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and partners, who collected almost 1,000 DNA samples from all major giraffe populations across Africa, they have now confirmed that there are four distinct giraffe species in Africa and five sub-species, all living in distinct areas. This is important information as some subspecies have very small remaining populations, such as the West African giraffe, for which today there are under 600 remaining individuals.
With this information, more attention can be brought to the ‘silent extinction’ of giraffes, and conservation efforts can be fortified for the most at-risk subspecies. Without increased awareness, unique and important sub-species of this beloved animal will continue to slide quietly toward extinction
It is the South African giraffe that has been introduced to our Ukuwela Conservancy in South Africa. It is one of two subspecies of the Southern giraffe (Giraffe giraffa) : Angolan giraffe (G. g. angolensis) and South African giraffe (G. g. giraffa). There are an estimated 37,000 South African giraffe, and as such they are the most abundant of giraffe subspecies.
Each sub-species has its own distinctive coat pattern and colorings. The South African giraffe’s pattern extends all the way down the legs and is made up of large, uneven and notched spots on a background that is more tan-colored than cream or white.
Each giraffe’s coat pattern is unique, much like our fingerprints. We have photographed and ID’d all of the giraffe at Ukuwela, so that we can know ‘who is who’ when we see them in the field, enabling us to monitor them as individuals and to tell their stories. Their unique coat pattern remains unchanged throughout life, other than darkening in male giraffes as they age.
Our nine giraffe, each sponsored and named by an individual donor, connects our supporters to the story and struggles of survival for all giraffe across Africa. Although the South African giraffe is not endangered, the giraffe of Ukuwela are wonderful ambassadors for their species, reminding us that the biggest issue faced by giraffe is habitat loss. Giraffe's grazing areas across Africa have been fragmented, fenced off, split by roads, deforested, drilled for oil and mined. Saving habitat for all wildlife including giraffe is imperative.
As simply and boldly laid out by E.O Wilson, one of the great figures in biology and conservation of this century, we must strive to preserve “Half Earth” for wildlife, setting aside half of our planet’s terrestrial and oceanic space for other species within the next few decades. He calculated that by conserving this amount of space for nature, we can save 85 percent of the world’s species from extinction. “There are three levels of biodiversity that we're trying to save: ecosystems, then the species in the ecosystems, and then the genes that prescribe traits of the species that make up the ecosystem,” he said in a recent interview with National Geographic just after his 90th birthday celebration.
As he hints, it is not enough to conserve the giraffe species per say, but all of the genetic diversity of their sub-species as well, each uniquely adapted to their own environments.
The giraffe is a metaphor for the precarious position of even the most beloved animals in our ecosystems. Let’s all stick our necks out to save space for giraffe and all wildlife.