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A baby with a big job

Posted by: Bobbi Miller, WPZ Field Conservation Coordinator with Stephanie Fennessy, Giraffe Conservation Foundation Director

Out in the field, conservationists watch the giraffe and the giraffe watch back. Photo courtesy GCF. 

Here at Woodland Park Zoo we’re all twitterpated about the impending birth of Seattle’s tallest baby. But we’re not the only folks waiting for the giraffe calf. Halfway across the world, in Windhoek, Namibia, Steph and Julian Fennessey are anxiously awaiting word of our new arrival.

As founders of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, a Woodland Park Zoo Wildlife Survival Fund project, they are working to understand and save the remaining giraffe in the wild. It’s a daunting task, but the birth of Tufani’s wee one (if you can call a 6 foot, 150 pound baby a “wee one”) gives them hope for the remaining giraffes in the wild. With every giraffe born in an Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited zoo, more people become aware of the plight of giraffes in the wild. With awareness comes passion, and with passion comes conservation. As William Barclay said, “There are two great days in a person’s life, the day we are born, and the day we discover why.” Tufani’s baby will accomplish both on the same day since she will be born with a very important job: ambassador for giraffes across Africa.

A group of desert dwelling giraffe walking across a plain in NW Namibia. Photo courtesy GCF. 

Throughout their African range, giraffes contribute to conserving the habitat for the other animals they share the landscape with. They’re considered landscape changers because they feed at heights that no other animals can reach, spreading seeds and pollinating trees. Yes, you read that right—giraffe heads and necks are frequently covered in pollen as they shake trees to get to flowers, a favorite meal among the long-necked set. That pollen sticks with them as they travel up to 10 miles a day, eating flowers and pollinating trees as they go. But more than the ecosystem work they do, they’re iconic. Can you imagine what Africa would look like without the giraffe?

Think about that for a minute.

Desert dwelling giraffe roaming in the Hoanib river, one of the few lifelines in the desert. Photo courtesy Julian and Steph Fennessy/GCF.

It may become a reality sooner than you think. In December of 2016, giraffes were moved to vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). New population surveys show an overall 36-40% decline in giraffe populations, from more than 150,000 in 1985, to less than 100,000 in 2015. While the move to vulnerable is a good step, it may not be realistic. Recent genetic research shows that rather than just one species with multiple sub-species, there may be four distinct species of giraffe. If that’s true, it means the total number of giraffe used to determine their vulnerability need to be broken down by individual species, rather than just one aggregate number. That means different management strategies, and could mean that three of Africa’s four giraffe species (reticulated, Masai, and Northern) would become some of the most endangered large mammals in the world. 

But don’t give up hope—with the birth of Tufani’s big baby you can help to save giraffes in Africa. Every visit you make to the zoo contributes to our conservation efforts in the Pacific Northwest and around the world, supporting the work of groups like Giraffe Conservation Foundation. You take a conservation action each and every time you come to the zoo, vote in our Quarters for Conservation kiosks, and share your spare change through your donations. If you want to do more, join us on Wednesday, June 21 to celebrate World Giraffe Day and know that just by being here, you’ve helped to save a giraffe in Africa.

GCF Research vehicle observing desert dwelling giraffe in NW Namibia. Photo courtesy GCF.