SOUTH AFRICA: The giraffe, 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 lives 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. – BLOOMBERG