On this summer solstice, please spare a thought for one of the world’s most recognizable animals. Today’s as good a day as any to recognize and celebrate the longest-necked animal on the planet — the longest day (or night, depending in which hemisphere you happen to be right now) of the year.
Celebrate but, hopefully, not commemorate.
Because one of the more underreported, overlooked environmental stories of the year is that the giraffe, that iconic animal and the stuff of countless fables and children’s storybooks, is now on the endangered species list.
According to the world-respected wildlife biologist and giraffe expert Dr. Julian Fennessy, giraffe populations have crashed by nearly half in just the past three decades, numbers even a Trumptard can understand.
Giraffes are now extinct in seven countries in which they used to thrive. Since a giraffe only has one offspring at a time, and the gestation period is 13 to 15 months, it doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out the entire species might be facing the immutable law of diminishing returns.
The Australian-born Fennessy is co-founder and executive director of the Namibia-based — yes, Namibia again — Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) (https://giraffeconservation.org) and co-chair of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group.
Fennessy initiated genetic research that found there are four species of giraffe in Africa, of which two — the Northern giraffe and the Reticulated giraffe — are among the world’s most critically endangered mammals. Even the familiar, and relatively common, Maasai giraffe isn’t out of the woods entirely.
Taken as a whole, the giraffe — as defined as a single species — is now listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of endangered animals.
Oddly, despite the giraffe’s profile in popular culture, little was known about them, let alone giraffe conservation, when Fennessy first founded the GCF as a modest, UK-based NGO in 2009, with just a handful of staff members.
“There had never been a full-time giraffe person before,” Fennessy told the South China Morning Post’s Tessa Chan earlier this month, before a Royal Geographical Society lecture in Hong Kong on the plight facing this gentle, graceful mammal.
The GCF has been conducting extensive population surveys in Uganda in cooperation with that country’s Uganda Wildlife Authority, using individual photographic markers and computer files. Population surveys used to be done from the air, using planes and helicopters, a process which is notoriously unreliable, Fennessy says, even with an animal as large and easy to spot as a giraffe.
“They have a (coat) pattern like a fingerprint,” Fennessy explained, “so we can ID them and over years build up a database.”
Fennessy believes conservation efforts have gained ground in Uganda, thanks largely to his group’s efforts, and in GCF’s home country of Namibia, but giraffes still face a poaching crisis in other African countries where they’re clinging to life — Ethiopia, South Sudan, Cameroon and the constantly war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Giraffes are sometimes killed just for their tail, for use as a fly swat.
“So they kill a whole giraffe and leave it, just for the tail,” he told the Morning Post.
People can become actively involved beyond being simply an armchair conservationist through donation, by sponsoring a giraffe or by helping with funding efforts.
Just as importantly — perhaps even more so — Fennessy asks that anyone considering a safari in Africa can support responsible ecotourism by asking the travel company what they do for conservation on the ground and — and this is the critical part — how they support local communities that live with and around wild animals.
The Johannesburg-based NGO African Parks actively vets safari companies and is willing to share information with anyone who asks.
If there’s one benefit to living in these times, Fennessy says, it’s that the world has become a small place: It’s easy to share information and learn new things at the click of a mouse.
As African Parks’ Andrea Heydlauff told a National Geographic-sponsored audience at the Half-Earth Day 2017 conference in Washington, DC, “what’s fantastic is that wildlife can rebound. Nature knows what to do. They just need to be given the space and security in order to thrive. And where wildlife thrives, people thrive.”
Reason for hope.