The combined impacts of habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, habitat degradation, human population growth, poaching, disease, war and civil unrest threaten the remaining giraffe numbers and their distribution throughout Africa. Many threats arise from direct, indirect or perceived competition for resources with humans and their livestock. Habitat degradation and destruction is caused by an increasing human demand for agricultural land, pastoralism, and uncontrolled timber and fuel-wood harvesting.
Human-giraffe conflict can develop due to crop loss and damage, and potential disease transmission can result from habitat sharing with domestic livestock. Sadly, giraffe outside protected areas are sometimes also struck by vehicles and trains.
The fragmentation and loss of giraffe habitat caused by human encroachment often leads to the isolation of giraffe populations which, in turn, limits the flow and exchange of genetic diversity between populations.
Although there is very little evidence of species interbreeding in the wild, the translocation of one species of giraffe to an area already occupied by a different species could create the risk of hybridisation. Should they interbreed, the genetic uniqueness of each individual species would be lost.
The giraffe has a distinct advantage in that it seldom competes with other wild animals or, more importantly, domestic livestock for food. Although conflict does sometimes occur, they do not naturally/normally pose a threat to humans. Nevertheless, there are a number of factors that restrict conservation initiatives throughout Africa.
The existence of long-term studies, reliable historical and current data, and targeted conservation research is limited. This lack of information remains one of the most limiting factors when it comes to understanding the conservation and management of giraffe, as well as their ecology and taxonomy. Current giraffe projects being conducted in Africa are some of the first ever.
More extensive knowledge is required, and exciting advances are being made. Our ongoing genetic research on giraffe populations across the continent has unravelled the mystery surrounding the giraffe’s taxonomy, providing invaluable information for Africa-wide giraffe conservation and management.
The giraffe’s physiology brings its own problems. Translocation projects can be highly beneficial for establishing or securing new giraffe populations, but they are a significant logistical undertaking. Conservationists and stakeholders go to great lengths in their efforts to secure giraffe populations, and over the past decades success can already be seen in southern Africa and more recently in Kenya, Malawi, Niger and Uganda.
GPS satellite tracking units have become an important aid for understanding giraffe habitat use, seasonal movements and home ranges, be they in and around human settlements or across international borders. The information these devices provide is invaluable for supporting long-term species and land management plans for giraffe and other wildlife. Nevertheless, tracking giraffe using GPS satellite units will require greater investment in both time and resources – and by its very nature of being such a uniquely built animal, this is something of a challenge!
Giraffe populations naturally fluctuate due to mortality through predation and disease, although this varies from population to population across the continent. Although lion prey on adult giraffe, they can result in 50% or more of new born giraffe not making it through their first year. Giraffe are also vulnerable to leopard and spotted hyena, and to a lesser extent cheetah and crocodile. Additionally, humans pose a big problem by poaching giraffe throughout parts of their range. Population growth is also limited by malnutrition, resulting from poor food quality and quantity, as well as diseases such as anthrax and, historically, rinderpest.
When it comes to conservation, giraffe compete with more charismatic species such as elephant and lion, particularly for funding. It is estimated that the current giraffe population is a quarter of the African elephant’s. This discrepancy, and little-known fact by most in the world, understandably leads many people to assume that giraffe are everywhere and do not face a conservation crisis – but the almost 30% population decline over the past three decades clearly demonstrates that it does.
The extent of poaching and its subsequent changes in giraffe population dynamics are still poorly understood. It is a subject that needs to be further addressed but, already, reports from various parts of Africa are not positive. At the same time, there are clear conservation successes where pro-active support for giraffe has been provided.