Giraffes Are Facing a Silent Extinction

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The giraffe’s place on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List has jumped two spots from “Least Concern” to “Vulnerable to Extinction” following a 40 percent decline in their population.

By Shreya Dasgupta

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An 11-day-old newborn giraffe calf stands beside his mother named Mimi in their enclosure at Himeji Central Park on October 16th, 2013, in Himeji, Japan. (Photo: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)

The iconic giraffe is rapidly heading toward extinction, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

In the past 30 years, giraffe numbers have plummeted by 40 percent from around 157,000 individuals in 1985 to 97,500 in 2015, IUCN announced in a statement last week. This has brought the charismatic species a few steps closer to extinction.

Given their dramatic decline, the giraffe’s IUCN Red List status has jumped two places from “Least Concern” to “Vulnerable to Extinction.”

“Whilst giraffes are commonly seen on safari, in the media and in zoos, people — including conservationists — are unaware that these majestic animals are undergoing a silent extinction,” Julian Fennessy, co-chair of the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group, said in the statement. “With a decline of almost 40% in the last three decades alone, the world’s tallest animal is under severe pressure in some of its core ranges across East, Central and West Africa.”

Some recent studies have suggested that there may be up to four distinct species of giraffes, which do not mate in the wild. But the IUCN currently recognizes a single species of giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), split into nine recognized subspecies based on their coat markings and geographical distribution. Some giraffe subspecies are at greater risk of extinction than others, researchers say.

The West African giraffe (Giraffa c. peralta), for example, is only found in an isolated population in the southwestern corner of Niger. In 2008, this subspecies was listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List. Similarly, the Rothschild’s giraffe (G.c. rothschildi), found in Uganda and introduced to central and southwest Kenya, is also listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Populations of four subspecies seem to be increasing (G.c. angolensis, G.c. giraffa, G.c. peralta, G.c. rothschildi), while those of four subspecies are decreasing (G.c. antiquorum, G.c. camelopardalis, G.c. reticulata, G.c. tippelskirchi), according to IUCN. One subpopulation (G.c. thornicrofti) appears to be stable.

Geographically, giraffes in Central and Eastern Africa are decreasing. And the tall mammal is thought to have gone extinct in at least seven countries: Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, and Senegal. The major cause of their decline, according to researchers, is illegal hunting, habitat loss, and expansion of agricultural and mining areas, increasing human-wildlife conflict and civil unrest.

“As one of the world’s most iconic animals, it is timely that we stick our neck out for the giraffe before it is too late,” Fennessy said.

This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Mongabay.com. Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

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