From my safari Jeep in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, binoculars aren’t needed to spot the long, elegant neck of a giraffe through the treetops in the distant bush. The world’s tallest mammal—towering between 14 and 19 feet—is impossible to miss, yet somehow it has quietly moved toward extinction without much notice.
About 117,000 giraffes remain in Africa, a drop of nearly 40% from 35 years ago, according to the latest estimates from the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, a Namibia-based nonprofit dedicated to saving giraffes in the wild. That’s one living giraffe for every three to four elephants. They’ve disappeared completely from seven African countries, prompting the International Union for Conservation of Nature to sound an alarm and classify them as “vulnerable” in December 2016.
There are four species of giraffe, each of which live in geographically distinct regions. Some subspecies have been moved to the IUCN’s endangered or critically endangered status. There are fewer than 2,000 Kordofan giraffe, a subspecies found across West Africa with small, pale yellowish-brown spots that stop on its haunches, for example, and around 15,950 reticulated giraffes, a subspecies native to the Horn of Africa distinguished by its rich orange-brown patches starkly outlined in white.
The usual factors, including disease, civil unrest, and illegal hunting, have contributed to the decline in giraffe numbers. (There are also cultural reasons: Some poach them for meat or believe the skin cures cancer, and some consider their tails a status symbol.) But environmental pressures, particularly habitat loss, are the main culprit, says Stephanie Fennessy, director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. In the last 300 years, giraffes have lost almost 90% of their habitat to human development including agriculture and infrastructure building, she says.
Although they’re not part of the so-called safari Big Five—elephants, lions, buffaloes, leopards, and rhinoceroses—the tall leggy blondes of the African plains are equally as iconic. Yet their impending demise has failed to attract the attention that the plight of the rhino or elephant has. Celebrities including Edward Norton and Leonardo DiCaprio have helped raise awareness about the danger to two of Africa’s most poached and trafficked animals, prized for their horns and tusks.
In 2021, the IUCN changed the status of the African forest elephant and African savanna elephant from vulnerable to critically endangered and endangered, respectively, estimating that only a total of 415,000 remain on the continent. And three species of rhino—black, Sumatran, and Javan—are listed as critically endangered. In recent years, increased law enforcement and legislation for trafficking as well as population relocation programs have halted some declines. Black rhino numbers have actually grown at an annual rate of 2.5% between 2012 and 2018.
Giraffes haven’t been able to muster the same star power. Fennessy says the main reason is that people aren’t aware of the problem. “You’re still likely to spot giraffes in the major tourism parks and game reserves like the Serengeti and Maasai Mara, so people just assume they’re flourishing everywhere in Africa,” she says. To raise awareness of what Fennessy has coined a “silent” extinction, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation designated June 21 World Giraffe Day.
Fennessy’s organization, which works in 17 African countries, has been collaborating with governments and local communities to bring the giraffe back into areas where they’d historically thrived. In Uganda, for example, civil unrest decimated the number of Nubian giraffes—which stand out because of their large, rectangular, chestnut-brown patches–to barely 250. Cooperation among the government, communities, and the Giraffe Conservation Foundation has facilitated the translocation of three populations of giraffes and has increased the rare subspecies’ numbers to more than 1,650.
World Giraffe Day is aimed at raising awareness around returning the animals back to Mozambique, a country where giraffes once flourished, says Fennessy. “There are currently only 250 giraffes in the entire country, and we’ve committed to bringing in 350 in the next five years to four or five different locations to boost the populations,” she says. “We estimate this series of translocations will more than double the population.”
Translocations like this can cost upwards of $50,000, says Fennessy. She hopes partnerships with safari operators can spur major donations from people willing to pay in exchange for getting a more intimate glimpse of the conservation efforts through partnerships with safari outfitters. Safari operators, so far, have been eager to be involved.
The loss of any species threatens to collapse fragile ecosystems, says Dereck Joubert, conservationist and chief executive officer of Great Plains Conservation. Giraffes, for example, trim trees into umbrella shapes that afford shade and protection for antelope, zebra, and other species. While those animals cool in the shade, they stimulate the grass under those trees, and that attracts small grazers. “The simple act of grazing a tree to shape changes everything,” he says.
Great Plains Conservations has focused anti-poaching efforts in northern Tanzania, an area notorious for giraffe poaching. The organization recently announced a three-year plan to relocate more than 3,000 animals, including giraffes, to Sabi Reserve in Zimbabwe.
Natural Selection, an operation with camps in South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana, partnered with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation to build Hoanib Valley Camp deep in northwestern Namibia. Guests can assist in collecting data, such as grazing range, on the area’s desert-adapted giraffe, and 1.5% of the camp’s revenue is invested in Giraffe Conservation Foundation.
To date, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation’s collaboration with Namibia-based operator Ultimate Safaris has been its biggest success story. In June 2021, the partners moved 14 Angolan giraffes, which are a pale cream color with brown spots and speckled lower legs, from a small private farm to a vast expanse of communal lands in northwest Namibia to help boost an existing giraffe population. “Seeing the return of Angolan giraffe in numbers to this area is amazing,” says William Steenkamp, a naturalist guide at Ultimate Safaris’ new lodge, Onduli Ridge, named after the area’s resident animals (onduli means giraffe in the Oshiwambo language spoken in northern Namibia). “Where in past years giraffe sightings were rare, they are now pretty much daily,” he says. “They’ve added so much value to our guest experience as well as a point of pride in the local communities.”