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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Stick your neck out for World Giraffe Day

Posted by: Bobbi Miller, Conservation

Their gentle but steady gait across the African savanna would seem to indicate the land’s tallest mammal hasn’t a care in the world. With a neck and legs that help to elevate it to anywhere between 14 and 17 feet tall, the giraffe snacks from the tops of acacia trees and should easily be able to see predators approaching on the savanna.

Angolan giraffe are well adapted to their harsh desert environment. Photo by Julian & Steph Fennessy

But giraffe are under increasing pressure in their homeland, causing their population numbers to have dropped by more than 40% over the past decade and a half. Despite the fact they can run at speeds of 31 miles an hour for a sustained period, they can’t seem to outrun the threats that are impacting the 9 known subspecies.

In particular, giraffe are subject to poaching, disease, fragmentation and degradation leading to loss of habitat, and the expansion of human populations. Today, when you add up all 9 subspecies, there are probably fewer than 75,000 giraffe left in the wild. While that seems like a fairly large number, think back to 1998—just 17 years ago—when there were over 140,000 giraffe in Africa. By 2012, that number had dropped to less than 80,000, and it’s even lower today.

Desert dwelling giraffe roaming in the Hoanib River, one of the few lifelines in the desert. Photo by Julian & Steph Fennessy

Due to those declining numbers, Woodland Park Zoo curators and conservation staff made the decision to invest in giraffe conservation through the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF). GCF is dedicated to securing a future for all giraffe populations found in the wild.

Currently, GCF is using funding from Woodland Park Zoo to build the first long-term ecological monitoring effort on the desert-dwelling Angolan giraffe in northwestern Namibia. Surprisingly, this is the first ever long-term ecological monitoring project of giraffe in Africa. This research will be used as a baseline for the development of the National Giraffe Conservation Strategy for Namibia, and should provide the basis for the first formal IUCN Red List assessment of Angolan giraffe. 

Out in the field, who is really watching who? Photo by Giraffe Conservation Foundation.

Monitoring is currently underway to create individual recognition files for each of the desert-dwelling giraffe, population dynamics assessment across their range, habitat assessment, forage and behavioral interactions, threat analysis and competition between giraffe and other species. 

Two GCF research assistants during giraffe observations near the Hoanib River, northwestern Namibia. Photo by Giraffe Conservation Foundation

So how will this individual identification take place? Giraffe have a pelage (coat) pattern that does not change throughout their life. The color intensity may fade or darken over time, but like a fingerprint, that pattern doesn’t change. Digital photographs of the right and left side of individual giraffe are currently being collected and will lead to the creation of a pictorial database. Over time age, sex, photos of ossicones, color and tail length will be added, assuring easy identification. 

Eventually this information will be used to develop a comprehensive Africa-wide giraffe conservation status report. With World Giraffe Day just around the corner on June 21, 2015, it’s time to stick your neck out to learn a little more about our longnecked friends, and how we can work together to keep them around for years to come.

The herd at Woodland Park Zoo. Photo by Stan Milkowski/Woodland Park Zoo.

Come visit Woodland Park Zoo’s herd and look for our giraffe feeding experience for a chance to chat with keepers and meet these incredible animals up close. 

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