Giraffe population on the road to recovery


The giraffe is an iconic species on the African continent and a favourite to spot on safari. While their numbers have declined over the years, indicating greater demand for their conservation, a new research project has revealed it is never too late to protect these animals.




Sketch: Graham Kearney

Michael Brown, PhD candidate at Dartmouth College’s Graduate Program in Ecology, Evolution, Ecosystems and Society, and Research Associate at the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, was part of a team that has made some interesting discoveries while investigating the distribution of near-threatened Rothschild’s giraffe in Uganda.

Almost 90% of Uganda’s Rothschild’s giraffe population occur in the Murchison Falls National Park, proving how important the country is for the protection of this species. As a range state, Uganda has more of these animals than any other country, making the park integral to its conservation.

Apart from these populations, some also occur in Kenya’s protected areas. Rothschild’s giraffe once roamed across western Kenya, South Sudan and Uganda.

Their numbers have not been stable. Estimates from the 1960s indicated 1 800 individuals across five populations before numbers fell dramatically.

Illegal hunting and political and social instability in Uganda led to a decline of 90%. By the early 1990s there were fewer than 100 giraffe left, and three of the five populations were locally extinct. Fortunately, populations were able to recover between the 1990s and mid-2010. Current estimates are 1 400 adult and sub-adult individuals. “We conducted intense individual based surveys, in which we quite literally photographed almost all of the giraffe in Uganda, to independently verify population growth rates,” Brown explains.

Conducting surveys. Photo: Julian-Fennessy

His research entailed surveys three times a year, from the inception of the project in 2014. “The response of the giraffe population over the past three decades is nothing short of amazing,” he enthuses. If given a chance, and if the environmental conditions are right, he believes giraffe populations can respond positively.

“This emphasises the need for continued research into the ecological conditions that can give rise to population growth rates, and the conservation initiatives that can facilitate these conditions.”
In addition to the research, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) conducted DNA analysis of every major giraffe population across the African continent to understand giraffe taxonomy better and assist with conservation decisions. While the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recognises a single species and nine subspecies, the research by GCF and its partners suggests otherwise.

“The IUCN data is based on traditional taxonomy, which we believe is outdated,” says Stephanie Fennessy, director of the GCF. “New methodologies like DNA analysis are available and we should make use of them,” she adds.

GCF research shows there are four distinctly different kinds of giraffe: Masai, reticulated, Southern and Northern giraffe. The Angolan and South African giraffe are two subspecies of the Southern giraffe. Nubian, Kordofan and West African giraffe are subspecies of the Northern giraffe. The Rothschild’s giraffe in Brown’s study is genetically identical to the Nubian giraffe.

Fennessy says more extensive knowledge is required and exciting advances are being made. “The current giraffe projects conducted in Africa are some of the world’s first. Our genetic research has unravelled the mystery surrounding the giraffe’s taxonomy, providing invaluable information for Africa-wide giraffe conservation and management,” Fennessy explains.

Rothschild’s giraffe, which is genetically identical to the Nubian giraffe, in Uganda. Photo: Michael Brown

She says some of the biggest challenges in the conservation of the species are the lack of knowledge and available information on giraffe, and the lack of interest in giraffe conservation in general.
“Overall, the largest challenge remains the lack of resources – it is much more difficult to find
money for giraffe conservation than other large mammals,” says Fennessy.


Written and photos by René de Klerk 

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