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Pardon the pun, but it’s time to stick our necks out for giraffes.
We’ve mistakenly taken the world’s tallest mammal for granted — fretting far more about other beloved mega-fauna such as rhinos, elephants, and great apes.
But now it seems that all is not well in giraffe-land. Thanks to molecular genetics, we’ve just realised that what we thought was one species of giraffe is in fact four species, divided into various distinctive subspecies. That’s a lot more biodiversity to worry about.
Even more disturbing is that giraffe populations are collapsing. Once roaming widely across Africa’s savannas and woodlands, they now occupy less than half of the real estate they did a century ago.
Even where they still persist, giraffe populations are increasingly sparse and fragmented. Their numbers have fallen by 40 percent in just the last two decades, and they’ve disappeared entirely from seven African countries.
As a result, giraffe specialists with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature have just changed the overall status of giraffes from “Least Concern” to “Vulnerable”.
In biological terms, that’s like a ship’s pilot suddenly bellowing “iceberg dead ahead!”
Giraffes today are getting hit from all sides. Africa’s population is growing so fast it could quadruple this century. And all those additional people are using lots more land for farming, livestock, and burgeoning cities.
Beyond this, Africa has become a feeding ground for foreign corporations, especially big mining firms from China, India, Canada, Australia, and other nations. To export bulk commodities such as iron, copper and aluminium ore, China in particular has gone on a frenzy of road, railway, and port building.
Fueled by the flood of foreign currency, Africa’s infrastructure is booming. For instance, a total of 33 ‘development corridors’ — centered around ambitious highway and rail networks — have been proposed or are under active construction.
Research led by ALERT director Bill Laurance shows that these projects would total over 53,000 kilometers in length, crisscrossing the continent and opening up vast expanses of remote, biologically rich ecosystems to new development pressures.
In addition, giraffes are plagued by poachers with powerful automatic rifles. As shown in this poignant video, giraffes are commonly killed merely for their tails — which are valued as a status symbol and dowry gift by some African cultures.
Time to Act
The sweeping decline of giraffes reflects wider trends in wildlife populations. A recent report by WWF projects that we could lose two-thirds of all individual birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fish on Earth by 2020. Species in tropical nations are doing especially poorly.
What are we to do? A critical first step is to help African nations to develop their natural resources and economies in ways that don’t decimate nature.
We also must address the fundamental drivers of Africa’s plight: its booming population and desperate needs for sustainable development.
For the stately giraffe and the rest of Africa’s declining wildlife, it’s time to stand tall -- or simply wave goodbye.