Giraffes at home on the range

In my last post I mentioned that giraffe populations have been falling since at least the start of the 20th century, in part due to habitat loss, poaching, and changing climatic conditions. Has the past decade given us clearer insight into the problems facing them and ways to counteract those losses? In some ways things haven’t really changed, but there are some additional concerns now, too.

What trends have continued? Giraffe populations are still falling, for example dropping about 30% in Kenya in the ten years before 2012 (Musyoki et al. 2012). And in places where giraffes remain, they are increasingly restricted in what habitat is available to them. One of the concerns here is that increased contact between people and giraffes can lead to both giraffes getting used to being around people and people becoming less tolerant of giraffes (Leroy et al. 2009)- as of 2009, the former had happened with the small population of giraffes still living in Niger, but farmers, although sometimes losing crops to giraffes, had yet to start retaliating. In northern Kenya there was also worry that, as more herders turned to camels, there would be competition between livestock and giraffes for food, but research suggests that the two groups focus on different plant species and different browsing heights (O’Conner et al. 2015). Changing climatic conditions are also expected to continue influencing giraffe populations– since giraffe population density is positively correlated with late dry-season rainfall, expected reductions in rainfall due to climate change will probably put more stress on giraffes (Ogutu et al. 2008).

Captive giraffe populations are also at risk from giraffe skin disease.

In addition to these continuing problems, there are several additional reasons we should be paying attention to giraffes right now. Giraffes may have a bigger family tree than we thought– recent genetic analysis suggests that, rather than a single giraffe species with up to 9 subspecies (depending on who you talk to), we may be dealing with four separate species, some of which have subspecies (Fennessy et al. 2016). While this is very exciting news, it also complicates conservation efforts since we now have 4 species which split the original total population, so we could have greater issues with low genetic diversity. And an emerging skin disease also has some researchers worried– giraffe skin disease has been documented in both wild and captive populations over the last 25 years and severe cases of the wrinkled, apparently itchy skin can leave giraffes open to secondary infection and even induce lameness, which makes the animals easier prey (Muneza et al. 2016).

In a number of ways giraffes have some odds stacked against them- are there things that we can do to help them out? I’ll look into our options for my next post.

Works cited:

Fennessy, J, Bidon, T, Reuss, F, Kumar, V, Elkan, P, Nilsson, MA, Vamberger, M, Fritz, U, and A Janke. 2016. Multi-locus analyses reveal four giraffe species instead of one. Current Biology 26: 1-7.

Leroy, R, de Visscher, M-N, Halidou, O, and A Boureima. 2009. The last African white giraffes live in farmers’ fields. Biodiversity and Conservation 18: 2663-2677.

Muneza, AB, Montgomery, RA, Fennessy, JT, Dickman, AJ, Roloff, GJ, and DW Macdonald. 2016. Regional variation of the manifestation, prevalence, and severity of giraffe skin disease: a review of an emerging disease in wild and captive giraffe populations. Biological Conservation 198: 145-156.

Musyuoki, C, Andanje, S, Said, M, Chege, M, Anyona, G, Lukaria, L, and B Kuloba. 2012. Challenges and opportunities for conserving some threatened species in Kenya. The George Wright Forum 29: 81-89.

O’Conner, DA, Butt, B, and JB Foufopoulos. 2015. Foraging ecologies of giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata) and camels (Camelus dromedarius) in northern Kenya: effects of habitat structure and possibilities for competition? African Journal of Ecology 53: 183-193.

Ogutu, JO, Piepho, H-P, Dublin, HT, Bhola, N, and RS Reid. 2008. Rainfall influences on ungulate population abundance in the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem. Journal of Animal Ecology 77: 814-829.