No wild animal on earth has an easy death. Be it starvation, disease, mortal wound, or a predator’s teeth, an inevitably grisly end awaits all creatures born into a world where nature’s dictum is the daily struggle to survive.
Though seemingly cruel, the ebb and flow of an animal’s precarious existence is the status quo that conservationists the world over are fighting to preserve. Without that primal but necessary ecological rhythm, wildlife in all flesh and form would simply cease to be.
As someone who loves Uganda, who spends time in the field doing research on its resident lions, observing and documenting their struggles for survival, even getting to know some of them as individuals, I’ve come to accept that their transient, unforgivingly harsh lives and equally cruel deaths are part of the natural order.
Yet despite the fact that wild lions don’t live that long, I was crestfallen to hear of the premature deaths of 11 of them in Queen Elizabeth National Park, done likely in retaliation for livestock predation.
Sadly, these lions, eight of which were cubs, did not die as ecologically intended. Their lives were tragically snuffed out as a result of suspected poisoning, which as it relates to lion conservation, is an unfortunate setback for the Ugandan population.
What happened in Queen Elizabeth National Park is not an isolated event. Human-wildlife conflict is endemic across much of rural Africa, impacting the entire conservation apparatus: regional biodiversity, the stability of ecosystems, and the well-being of marginalized peoples acting on basic survival compulsions. It is a nearly insurmountable hurdle with no straightforward way over.
Upon learning of the tragedy, I immediately wrote to my colleague and friend, Dr. Ludwig Siefert. As head of the Uganda Carnivore Program, he dedicates himself to finding a balance between the lions of Queen Elizabeth National Park and the vibrant communities of fishers and farmers living near them, including the village of Hamukungu, where the deaths occurred.
By working closely with the Uganda Wildlife Authority, Siefert’s efforts have seen lions celebrated throughout the park’s enclave villages, financial compensation for the loss of goats and cattle thanks in part to tourist donations, and a number of other human-wildlife conflict programs aimed at protecting people and lions from one another, all under the umbrella of greater carnivore conservation.
To say that I wasn’t overcome with emotion at the loss of these 11 lions would be dishonest; my initial reaction was a plurality of anger, frustration, and sadness. But though my feelings were justified, I eventually had to swap them for critical thought.
“Lions will do what comes naturally to them,” Rachael, my fiancée said, referring to the all too common attacks on livestock. “Whoever poisoned them did so to protect their animals. How can we, who have grocery stores and access to so much that many people in Africa don’t have, even possibly understand what life is like for them? There’s just no good solution at the moment.”
Though not a conservationist by trade, she’d provided a profoundly teachable moment. I needed the reminder that even though a lot was done to ensure the safety of these lions, human conditions in this part of the world meant that it was only a matter of time before another flash point was reached. It was, and has been for some time, a no-win situation.
The lions of Queen Elizabeth National Park are famous for climbing sycamore figs in the Southern Ishasha sector, and candelabra euphorbia cacti in the northern Kasenyi plains. Photo by Michael Schwartz.
When taking a bird’s eye view of Africa, her people and her wildlife, one must admit that something is truly wrong with the overall picture. Yes, there are a number of organizations—government agencies, researchers, NGOs, volunteers, effervescent activists—all dedicated to saving lions. Some are quite successful. Yet in spite of management strategies and livestock husbandry schemes, compensation plans and cattle enclosures, lions are still being eliminated at an alarming rate.
This steady decline reveals a hard truth: As long as a growing rural population remains tethered to poverty, the risk of losing more lions stays high. And if we (the Western world) react to every wildlife tragedy with nothing more than moral exhibitionism toward the disenfranchised, then the root of the problem will stay buried beneath the conflict.
This may come as a surprise, even go beyond the frame of reference for some, but though I’m saddened, I hold no ill will toward the perpetrator(s). I know that if caught, there will likely be a hefty jail sentence or stiff fine. But how many times have we seen people apprehended, issued severe punishments, then become recidivists?
While arrests may be a salve to our personal wounding at the loss of wildlife and painstaking desire to see justice served, in the end it is nothing more than an attack on the symptom of human-wildlife conflict. The source, meanwhile, remains free to dictate these sad turn of events ad nauseum.
This is not to argue that there are no circumstances that warrant justice, nor is it wrong to express sympathy over the loss of these amazing creatures. But to put one living thing on a pedestal while refusing to empathize with the difficult circumstances of the other, is the wrong way to approach the problem.
In other parts of the world, where poverty isn’t as rampant, there doesn’t exist the same level of concern about dangerous wildlife, if one’s cattle or crops are safe, when the next meal can be successfully speared, trapped, shot, or fished, or if there is enough wood for the fire or water fetched from the nearest body of water to drink.
Ironically, while many of those suffering from domestic stock losses that take punitive action against offending lions arguably don’t see their intrinsic value, those in the western world who hold lions in high regard live in places completely devoid of them.
A Ugandan fisherman heads out at dusk to earn a living. Photograph by Michael Schwartz
Human poverty and wildlife is like oil and water. Not only are they incompatible, but they exist at the heart of so many tragic events contributing to wildlife loss in Africa. From retaliatory aggression against predators acting merely on instinct to unsustainable bushmeat poaching in support of a starving family, poverty has crippling effects on the lives of humans, animals, and the environment at large.
For people living in the African bush, tending herds is an occupational hazard, while for lions, easy meals can come at deadly costs. To boil it down, both parties living on the fringes are a continued threat to one another. How, then, can the problem be fixed?
Though I’m immensely passionate about lions, part of the answer begins by having compassion toward my fellow human beings. It must start by changing public opinion of the African people, many of whom are still seen unfairly as the callous enemies of wildlife. By continually impugning their character, by pitting human against beast without understanding the root cause of the issue, we are doing nothing more than reinforcing the status quo, meaning lions won’t stand much of a chance.
Like it or not, the lives of people and lions are inextricably linked, as they have been since time immemorial. The survival of latter being dependent on the welfare of the former is more important than ever.
Rather than immediately casting judgment, we must rediscover our empathy. We must ask ourselves what we would do if we were living without the means or resources to protect ourselves? Only then will more people care enough to act in the best interest of people and lions. Only then will another Ludwig Siefert join in the effort. That, in my opinion, is the true definition of a conservationist.
A conservationist is not someone who only loves animals. A conservationist is someone who sees the whole picture, and dedicates herself or himself to finding solutions that are beneficial for all involved. They are the ones who tirelessly work to build rainwater collection systems, or raise funds to open a school where young minds can learn about the value of the wildlife in their own backyards.
I must be careful not to paint with too broad a brushstroke, as I do not want to oversimplify all that human-wildlife conflict entails. There are similar issues such as ivory poaching, unsustainable hunting, corruption, and rhino horn harvesting that require the law’s intervention.
But when I envision communities with safe access to clean drinking water, proper forms of waste disposal, and improved or alternative fishing and farming methods, all with the idea of healthy local economies in mind, I believe lions will have a better chance of survival.
Imagine if the outside world showed as much care and concern for the people of Africa as it does for its wildlife? What if we traded in empty criticisms for helping hands? Once more, that is the essence of what it is to be a conservationist, not to mention what it is to be human.
This effort must coalesce with the celebration of the amazing people—black, white, and otherwise—that call Africa home. From the four kingdoms of Uganda to the Rainbow nation of South Africa, the herders of the Maasai Steppe to the San who can read the intricacies of the bushveld the way no other human can, the future of lions, indeed all wildlife under the brilliant African sun, is under their care.
Lions have as much a right to be on this earth as we do. But it is only when we give the same amount of compassion and care to people that lions will be free to live and die as nature intended.
“If we do not do something to prevent it, Africa’s animals, and the places in which they live, will be lost to our world, and her children, forever. Before it is too late, we need your help to lay the foundation that will preserve this precious legacy long after we are gone.” Nelson Mandela
Africa is home to some 2341 bird species, 67% of which are endemic to the continent. We were overwhelmed by the number of photographs submitted this week! It seems that many have been enchanted by Africa’s amazing birdlife. As Rudyard Kipling said: “One cannot resist the lure of Africa.” We invite you to join us on an adventure to explore the amazing birdlife of Africa. Here we present 25 of the best photographs presented for this week’s theme. Next week we explore the birds of Australia. If you would like to submit photographs to be considered simply upload them to our Facebook page with species, location, photographer and #birdsofaustralia as the caption.
African Fish Eagles are usually found along large still or flowing water bodies. If waterbodies dry up they may remain and feed on birds and carcasses (Muhammad Asif Sherzai)The African Pygmy-Kingfisher is monogamous, the pair excavates a burrow in a sand bank or in an existing mammal burrow (Marios Mantzourogiannis)White-faced Ducks tend to breed in temporary wetlands and then move to permanent wetlands to moult over the winter (Shivayogi Kanthi)The Eurasian Golden Oriole breeds in Eurasia and then spends the winter in sub-Saharan Africa and India. This Oriole was photographed in Ethiopia by Goutam MitraA White-bellied Go-Away Bird photographed in Tsavo West, Kenya by Marios MantzourogiannisThe Böhm’s Bee-eater was named after Richard Böhm, a German zoologist. This one was photographed in Liwonde National Park, Malawi by Anthony RobertsA trio of Great Cormorants at Lake Naivasha, Kenya (Anindya Dutta)Grey Go-away Birds get their name from their call which sounds like ‘go-away’ (Ravishankar Paranthaman)The Hooded Vulture is critically endangered, mainly due to poisoning (Preety Patel)The Lappet-faced Vulture has the largest wing-span of all the vultures in Africa (Wasif Yaqeen)The bright red gular pouch on the neck of the Grey Crowned Crane allows them to produce a deep booming call (Anindya Dutta)Lilac-breasted Rollers are endemic to Africa and are fairly common in woodland areas (Marios Mantzourogiannis)Unlike many swallows, the Lesser Striped Swallow is mostly resident (Anirban Roychowdhury)The Common Ostrich is the largest bird in the world. This one was photographed foraging on the plains of Kenya by Subhamoy DasThe Red-billed Firefinch eats mainly small grass seeds (Goutam Mitra)The Secretary Bird usually hunts on the ground, often in pairs. This pair was photographed in Kruger National Park, South Africa by Ravishankar ParanthamanThe male Silvery-cheeked Hornbill has a much larger bill than the female. This shot was taken at Lake Manyara, Tanzania by Edwin GodinhoThe Rüppell’s Starling is found only in east Africa. This handsome individual was photographed in Ethiopia by Goutam MitraThe Swainson’s Francolin is native to the savanas of southern Africa, usually near water (Ravishankar Paranthaman)A male Common Ostrich against the backdrop of beautiful mopane trees in Kruger National Park, South Africa (Ravishankar Paranthaman)White-fronted Bee-eaters hunt from perches, they have been recorded taking 300 swoops in one day with success rates of between 50% and 70% (Judi Fenson)White-headed Mousebirds occur only in east Africa, mainly in Somalia and Kenya (Goutam Mitra)Female Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills seal themselves into their nest cavities, mainly with their own faeces (Anirban Roychowdhury)A group of Yellow-billed Storks fly over Lake Manyara, Tanzania (Anindya Dutta)The population of Yellow-billed Oxpeckers declined due to reducing game numbers and toxic dips used on cattle. However the re-introduction of oxpeckers and oxpecker friendly dips has allowed the population to recover somewhat (Marios Mantzourogiannis)
Our mission is to build a global community around the freedom and beauty of birds in the wild as ambassadors for the natural ecosystems that they depend upon. They are the music, decoration, and character of every terrestrial habitat on the planet and have been around since the dinosaurs. They are the witnesses and ambassadors of the awesome power of nature. The wide availability of good, cheap optics has opened their world to us for the last few decades. Amazing, affordable DSLR cameras with long lenses are delivering brilliant digital bird imagery to online communities.
We are in a day-and-age during which more bird species are threatened with extinction than ever before. The Wild Birds! Revolution aims to publish the “Top 25 Wild Bird Photographs of the Week” to 1 million people every week by the end of the year. That is a revolution that will change the world! Join thousands of other weekend naturalists, photographers, birders, experts, hikers, nature-lovers, guides, scientists, conservationists and artists that share the thousands of wild bird photographs submitted to the Wild Bird Trust website and Facebook page. Thousands of wild bird enthusiasts are going out every day to photograph our planet’s beautiful birdlife. Pick up your camera, fill your bird feeder, open your heart, and join the Wild Birds! Revolution!!
Why did wild dogs vanish in Serengeti National Park? New answers are emerging. (Photograph: Per Harald Olsen)
It was the year when the Serengeti National Park’s music, or at least one section in its chorus-of-the-wild, died. In 1991, the twitters and whines of African wild dogs went strangely silent in Tanzania’s iconic protected area.
Scientists began tracking wild dogs, also called painted wolves, here in 1964. Over the next quarter-century, researchers watched as the wild dog population dwindled, then disappeared. Why did these canids effectively go extinct in a land where gazelles and other prey were plentiful?
Could the biologists themselves somehow be responsible?
An African wild dog in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area surveys its domain. (Photograph: Per Harald Olsen)
The blame game
It’s anathema to researchers to think their actions might cause harm to an endangered species like the African wild dog. But in 1994, Roger Burrows of the University of Exeter unleashed the controversial idea that it was indeed scientists’ actions that led to the dogs’ demise.
Wild dogs became stressed, Burrows stated, when researchers immobilized and placed radio collars on them. The stress suppressed the wild dogs’ immune systems, he said, allowing diseases they already carried to kill them.
Burrows’ hypothesis rattled biologists who had long depended on radio collars to follow animals, especially endangered species. The implications went far beyond the Serengeti, say ecologists Craig Jackson of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, Eivin Roskaft of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and colleagues at the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute and Carnegie Institution for Science.
The team recently published a paper debunking Burrows’ thinking in the journal Ecology and Evolution. Serengeti wild dogs, the researchers found, weren’t the victims of science.
Wild dogs can roam onto Serengeti National Park lands. But they rarely do. (Photograph: Per Harald Olsen)
Life on the periphery
Although Serengeti National Park was, and is, without wild dogs, the dogs survived in the park’s outskirts. These outlier wild dogs have been studied since 2005. Many are outfitted with GPS collars; data show that the dogs sometimes briefly cross park boundaries. “Therefore, wild dogs could reside there,” says Roskaft. But they don’t.
There are now more than 100 wild dogs in 10 packs outside the park in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Loliondo Game Controlled Area. Between 2006 and 2016, Roskaft and colleagues report, 121 wild dogs from these locations were handled by researchers, with 45 of the dogs radio-collared.
How many of the 121 survived for a year or more afterward? Some 87.6 percent, or 106 wild dogs. Scientists’ “interventions did not evoke disease outbreaks, and the high survival rate does not support Burrows’ hypothesis,” the biologists write in their paper.
Ecologist Craig Packer, a National Geographic Explorer and director of the University of Minnesota Lion Research Center, has studied lions in the Serengeti for more than three decades. Packer, who was not involved in the study, agrees with its conclusions. “This paper,” he says, “nails the coffin on the whole debate.”
Wild dogs face competition from hyenas at kill sites. (Photograph: Per Harald Olsen)
In: Hyenas and lions. Out: Wild dogs.
More than 25 years after wild dogs vanished from Serengeti National Park, none roam its grasslands. The answer, ecologists believe, is also the reason the dogs first faded away: hyenas and lions.
Rather than an extinction, Roskaft says, wild dogs’ disappearance was a shrinking of their range in response to increasing numbers of hyenas and lions. These carnivores often scare wild dogs away from their food.
The dogs moved out to the “far suburbs” — hillsides to the east of the park. The hills may offer safe places for wild dogs to den and raise their young.
With wild dogs out of the way, hyena and lion populations boomed. Any wild dogs brave enough to stay were left with slim pickings.
The evidence is clear, says Roskaft. “Increasing competition from hyenas and lions likely led to the downfall of the Serengeti National Park wild dog population.”
Packer and colleagues came to a similar conclusion. Between 1966 and 1998, the park’s lion population nearly tripled, they found, and wild dogs declined. Wild dogs once occupied park areas with low numbers of lions, which the dogs abandoned as lions “saturated” the region.
Serengeti National Park offers wild dogs – and other predators – plenty of prey. (Photograph: Per Harald Olsen)
A seesawing Serengeti
The picture was once very different. In the 1960s, Serengeti National Park was recovering from the effects of rinderpest, a disease of cattle that infected ungulates such as wildebeest and buffaloes – lions’ prey. The park’s lion population declined, and its wild dogs increased.
As rinderpest was brought under control and ungulates returned, lions followed. Soon wild dogs were edged out.
“A large number of wildebeest and lions, however, is a more ‘natural’ state for the Serengeti than the conditions that once allowed wild dogs to occupy its plains,” says Packer.
The big puzzle, he says, “is why wild dogs are able to co-exist with lions in places like the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania and Okavango Delta in Botswana. We suspect there’s something about the habitat that provides the dogs with ‘safe spaces.’”
With more answers needed, Roskaft is happy to put an end to the conjectures about radio collars. “Tools that help us understand endangered wild dogs and other species are important to protecting these animals,” he says, “especially in a world where carnivores are struggling in the face of a growing human population.”
No wild dog twitters and whines wend across Serengeti National Park. But, says Packer, “effective conservation requires multiple locations since species cannot always co-exist in all circumstances.”
To wild dogs traversing the Serengeti: at least for now, your melody is perhaps better sung in the savanna next door.
A wild dog in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area gazes across the savanna. (Photograph: Per Harald Olsen)
By Drew T. Cronin, Joshua Linder, Nelson Ting and Ekwoge Abwe – Coordinators of the Red Colobus Conservation Action Plan
Red colobus monkeys (Piliocolobus spp.) are a group of leaf-eating monkeys unique to the forests of sub-Saharan Africa, ranging from Senegal on the Atlantic coast to the island of Zanzibar in the Indian Ocean. Despite their broad range, red colobus monkeys have the regrettable distinction of being the most threatened group of primates in Africa. Experts are unclear about exactly how many species of red colobus there are, but we know there are at least 18 distinct forms, differing from one another in aspects of coat color and design, facial patterns, behavior, and vocalizations. Every form of red colobus monkey, unfortunately, is threatened with extinction.
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species considers more than half of red colobus forms Endangered or Critically Endangered. Five red colobus taxa–Niger Delta Red Colobus (P. epieni), Pennant’s Red Colobus (P. pennanti), Preuss’s Red Colobus (P. preussi), Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus (P. waldroni), and Tana River Red Colobus (P. rufomitratus) appear on the list of the World’s Top 25 Most Endangered Primates. Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus may have been hunted to extinction already, and GWC’s Search for Lost Species program considers it one of the world’s “most wanted” lost species. Despite the conservation status of red colobus, researchers have studied only a few populations in detail and the general public is largely unaware of these monkeys. General awareness of red colobus and their plight is further hindered by the lack of any captive populations in zoos around the world–animal husbandry experts have not been able to successfully care for them in captivity. Red colobus monkeys are therefore facing an extinction crisis requiring urgent, targeted, and coordinated conservation action.
The primary threats to red colobus are commercial and subsistence hunting, disease, and habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation resulting from numerous factors (i.e., logging, mining, charcoal production, infrastructure development, and conversion of forest to farms and agriculture plantations). Unfortunately, red colobus are more susceptible to hunting and habitat degradation than other monkeys and are usually one of the first species to disappear in disturbed habitats. Like a canary in a coal mine, loss of red colobus monkeys can be thought of as the first indicators of the decline of a healthy ecosystem.
A concerted and coordinated range-wide conservation effort is urgently required to conserve and recover all red colobus forms. In response to this critical need, the IUCN Primate Specialist Group, in collaboration with the African Primatological Society, is spearheading the first comprehensive Red Colobus Conservation Action Plan (ReCAP). Experts on all red colobus forms and their range countries are contributing to this action plan to unite and mobilize local and international conservation groups, governments, academic institutions, zoos, and other interested partners to prevent the further decline and loss of red colobus populations.
We expect to launch the ReCAP and an associated program of conservation work at the International Primatological Society (IPS) Congress in Nairobi, Kenya 2018. It is important to note, however, that we are not just looking to write an action plan, but to catalyze coordinated range-wide conservation action for red colobus monkeys and their habitats. The overarching goals of the ReCAP are to: enhance and expand site-based conservation for all forms of red colobus monkey; elevate red colobus monkeys to flagship status across their range and beyond; develop cross-cutting, continent-wide initiatives to link and support site-based activities; and, build capacity and create opportunities through training and mentoring programs.
This month, which included Endangered Species Day on May 18 and the International Day for Biological Diversity of May 22, we highlight the top five most threatened red colobus species, which are all Critically Endangered. We believe that through both site-based projects that ensure protection through enforcement, education, and ecological monitoring, and regional initiatives that leverage common solutions to achieve efficiencies of scale and range-wide adaptive management, no red colobus monkey needs go extinct.
Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus (Piliocolobus waldroni): Critically Endangered
Once found throughout southeastern Cote d’Ivoire and southwestern Ghana, extensive hunting and habitat loss have resulted in steep declines in its population. They have not been observed in the wild since 1978, despite extensive surveys. Experts believe that it may be extinct, but rumors of their existence persist from the deep interior of a single, remote, almost impenetrable swamp forest.
Niger Delta Red Colobus (Piliocolobus epieni): Critically Endangered
The most recently discovered red colobus species is already one of the most endangered. First described in the 1990s, the Niger Delta Red Colobus is found only in Nigeria, restricted to the swamp forests of the Niger Delta in an area of approximately 78 km squared. Its habitat has been severely degraded by logging, and hunting has increased due to the influx of oil workers to the region. With only about 200 individuals remaining, it is thought that it may go extinct within the next five years without effective conservation actions.
Tana River Red Colobus (Piliocolobus rufomitratus): Critically Endangered
This species is found only in small forest fragments along a 60-km stretch of river, in a total area of less than 13 km squared. Only around 1,000 individuals remain, but it is in continual decline due to rapid loss and fragmentation of its habitat. The endangered Tana River Mangabey is also endemic and restricted to the same forest as the Tana River Red Colobus.
Pennant’s Red Colobus (Piliocolobus pennantii): Critically Endangered
Biologists believe that Pennant’s Red Colobus, endemic to the small island of Bioko in Equatorial Guinea, were once found throughout all of Bioko’s lowland forests. Heavy hunting pressure and increasing infrastructure development, however, have reduced its range to only the most remote, mountainous corner of the island, in an area of about 150 km squared. Fewer than an estimated 1,200 individuals remain, a decline of more than 80 percent over the last 30 years due primarily to the proliferation of the commercial bushmeat trade. The critically endangered Bioko Black Colobus (Colobus satanas satanas) and endangered Bioko Drill (Mandrillus leucophaeus poensis) are also endemic, along with six other endangered primate taxa, and found in the same forest as the Pennant’s Red Colobus. As such, this species is a notable flagship for the primate fauna of Bioko Island.
Preuss’s Red Colobus (Piliocolobus preussi): Critically Endangered
Restricted mostly to two separate forests in western Cameroon, this species requires urgent support. Surrounded by some of the densest human populations in Africa, it is in sharp decline due to intense, commercialized bushmeat hunting and deforestation caused by expansion of small- and large-scale agriculture and infrastructure projects.
This post was co-authored by the coordinators of the Red Colobus Conservation Action Plan: Drew T. Cronin, Joshua Linder, Nelson Ting, and Ekwoge Abwe. For more info on the Red Colobus Conservation Action Plan, check out our website www.piliocolobus.org or follow us on Twitter at @RedColobusAP.
Giraffes, like these northern giraffes in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda, are facing a conservation crisis. (Photograph: Julian Fennessy)
The steep ravine of Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania lies behind me. Ahead are the plains of the Serengeti, grasses reaching toward the far horizon in a wavering line that finally bends into the curvature of the Earth. It is June, and the Serengeti’s “long rains” have just ended. The air is washed clean by the storms of March, April and May. In this briefest of interludes before the dry season, the land is verdant. Grasses still sprout, not yet turned sere and golden.
I think of age-old migrations and thundering hooves across miles of savanna. What I don’t think of is right before my as-yet-unseeing eyes: giraffes, peacefully browsing flat-topped trees, their legs and necks nearly hidden in a copse of acacias.
With all our concern for iconic African wildlife species – lions, cheetahs, rhinos – somehow we’ve forgotten the quietly ambling giraffes.
“While giraffes are commonly seen on safaris and in zoos, many people – including conservationists – are unaware that these majestic animals are undergoing a silent extinction,” says biologist Julian Fennessy, director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, based in Namibia. “With a decline of almost 40 percent in the last three decades, the world’s tallest animal is under severe pressure in many of its core ranges across East, Central and West Africa.”
Human population growth poses the greatest risk to giraffes, says Fennessy. “Habitat loss and expanding agriculture and mining, illegal hunting, and increasing human-wildlife conflict are pushing giraffes toward extinction.”
Biologists report a steep decline in the overall giraffe population, from some 163,452 giraffes in 1985 to 97,562 in 2015. As a result, giraffes have moved from species of “Least Concern” to “Vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
But is that one giraffe species…or several?
Fennessy and other scientists argue in a paper recently published on bioRxiv that “mounting evidence of four giraffe species proposes a re-evaluation of the current IUCN giraffe taxonomy to raise the classification to a [yet] higher level of threat, and in turn increase conservation actions.”
Scientists have discovered that there are likely four giraffe species. (Graphic: Giraffe Conservation Foundation)
The four giraffes
Scientists had long recognized one giraffe species and nine subspecies. Then ecologists began an analysis of giraffe relationships. Giraffes, it turns out, are not one species, but indeed four. “The genetic differences among giraffes are at least as great as those between polar bears and brown bears,” says Fennessy.
He and geneticist Axel Janke of Goethe University in Germany led the research team. The unexpected findings highlight the need for in-depth studies of and greater conservation efforts for the four genetically isolated species, the biologists say.
“We were surprised at the results because coat patterns and other visible differences among giraffes are somewhat limited,” says Janke. “Giraffes are also assumed to have similar ecological requirements across their range, but no one really knows because they’ve been largely overlooked by science.”
Wildlife biologists tracked and collected samples from nearly 200 giraffes across Africa. (Photograph: Julian Fennessy)
The researchers looked at DNA evidence from skin biopsies of 190 giraffes. “The extensive sampling included populations of all nine previously recognized giraffe subspecies,” says Fennessy.
The analysis shows that the four overall groups of giraffes don’t mate with each other in the wild. As a result, the scientists believe, giraffes should be recognized as four distinct species: northern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis); southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa); reticulated giraffe (Giraffa reticulata); and Masai giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi).
Why did giraffes separate into different species? Rivers, mountains and other geographic barriers may have kept populations apart long enough for new species to evolve, Fennessy says.
All giraffes are quintessential African savanna animals. That savanna, however, is vanishing. It once covered an area one and one-half times as large as the lower 48 U.S. states. Along with the grasslands, giraffes are disappearing.
Northern giraffes, for example, number fewer than 5,000 in the wild. “That makes them some of the most endangered large mammals in the world,” says Fennessy. “Giraffes have become islands in an ever-shrinking savanna.”
On the good news side, according to biologist Sam Ferreira of South African National Parks, southern giraffes are holding their own in South Africa’s national parks. Over the past five years, southern giraffe population increases have ranged from 0.1 percent in Marakele National Park to 17.9 percent in Mapungubwe National Park.
Fewer than 8,700 reticulated giraffes still exist in Africa; this one is in Samburu National Reserve in Kenya. (Photograph: Julian Fennessy)
Epicenter of giraffe species
Twiga, kanyiet, tiga. Lenywa, ndwiya, iment. In the dialects of Kenya, all are words for giraffe.
“Kenya is likely the epicenter of giraffe speciation [the formation of new species],” says Fennessy. “No other country has such a diversity of giraffes.”
The animals meander through open grasslands, woodlands and scrublands. There they chew on acacias and other trees. The browsing promotes new growth, according to GCF researchers, ultimately making leaves easier to find.
Giraffes once ranged far afield in their search for food and mates. Now fragmented habitat is hampering their walkabouts. “The lack of long-distance movement limits access to suitable forage and to natural gene flow between populations,” Fennessy says.
Across Africa, giraffes like these in northwestern Namibia are being crowded out by humans. (Photograph: Julian Fennessy)
Two giraffe species and one subspecies live in Kenya: the reticulated giraffe, which roams northern and eastern Kenya; the Masai giraffe, which inhabits the savanna and woodlands of southern Kenya; and the Nubian giraffe (formerly Rothschild’s giraffe), a subspecies of northern giraffe that’s reduced to small, scattered populations in western and central Kenya.
The Masai is Kenya’s most abundant giraffe, with some 12,000 animals, followed by the reticulated giraffe, with no more than 8,700 individuals. The Nubian giraffe numbers a paltry 400.
In the last two decades, Masai giraffes have declined by 50 percent and reticulated giraffes by some 70 percent. Nubian giraffe numbers have been going down for at least 50 years, mostly due to civil unrest in countries such as Uganda and Ethiopia, Fennessy says. “The turmoil has led to loss of giraffe habitat as people are displaced, then move into areas formerly occupied by giraffes.”
Nubian giraffes are being reintroduced in their native range, however. From east to west in Kenya, for example, small numbers are now found in Mwea National Reserve, Giraffe Centre, Kigio Wildlife Conservancy, Soysambu Conservancy and Lake Nakuru National Park, Nasolot National Reserve, Mt. Elgon National Park, Ruma National Park and Lake Baringo National Park.
Safari-goers visiting these and other protected areas can help, says Fennessy. “They can search for giraffes across the continent and let us know what they’re seeing. Many people, including guides, don’t realize that giraffes aren’t the same animals throughout Africa. When you look at the four species of giraffes alongside each other, they do in fact have different features, such as color, pattern and size.” The GCF website, https://giraffeconservation.org/, has detailed information.
It’s high time, Fennessy says, “to stick our necks out for giraffes.”
The sun goes down on Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. Missing in this picture are its giraffes. (Photograph: Wikimedia Commons)