On Our Watch, Global Giraffe Population 'Pushed Toward Extinction'

Juvenile giraffe in Uganda. (Photo: Rod Waddington/flickr/cc)

On Our Watch, Global Giraffe Population 'Pushed Toward Extinction'

'These gentle giants have been overlooked'

The global giraffe population has "plummeted" by nearly 40 percent over the last 30 years, and is now "threatened with extinction," according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) "Red List" released Thursday.

The IUCN cites illegal hunting, habitat loss due to expanding agriculture and mining, increasing human-wildlife conflict, and civil unrest as factors "pushing the species towards extinction." For the first time, the giraffe has been listed as "vulnerable" on the authoritative list, released at the 13th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP13) currently taking place in Cancun, Mexico.

"Nine small puddles will evaporate far more quickly than one big puddle, and so it is with life. It is the historic 'death-by-a-thousand-cuts,' writ large."
--Jules Howard, zoologist

"While there ha[s] been great concern about elephants and rhinos, giraffes have gone under the radar but, unfortunately, their numbers have been plummeting, and this is something that we were a little shocked about, that they have declined by so much in so little time," Dr. Julian Fennessy, who co-chairs the IUCN giraffe specialist group, told the BBC.

This echoed remarks by Sir David Attenborough in June, when he said of the world's tallest land mammal: "These gentle giants have been overlooked. It's well known that African elephants are in trouble and there are perhaps just under half a million left. But what no one realized is there are far fewer giraffes, which have already become extinct in seven countries."

And we are to blame, wrote zoologist and author Jules Howard in an op-ed on Thursday:

Imagine entering a museum of the future. Imagine walking across its great marble floors, dodging the schoolchildren and parents with buggies, past the toilets and the gift shop and down the corridor marked Mammals. Imagine marvelling at the bones and fossil teeth of mammoths, sabre-toothed tigers, and giant ground sloths. Now, pause. You are in shadow. You are in the shadow of an enormous towering skeleton of an extinct creature which stands almost 20ft high, with a long neck upon which a horny skull sits, within which would have been a tongue almost as long as a human arm. "On whose watch did such a creature face extinction?" those future museum visitors might ask.

Our watch. For today is the day giraffes first became listed as a threatened species, the day we learned from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature that giraffes are to be listed as "vulnerable" in their international Red List update. The day we learned that their downward spiral had begun. And the day we have to start doing something more to help.

And that "something" must address what Howard calls "the threat of fragmentation"--the isolation of the world's creatures into "breeding pockets" that are in turn encroached upon by climate change and other dangers.

"Nine small puddles will evaporate far more quickly than one big puddle, and so it is with life," he wrote. "It is the historic 'death-by-a-thousand-cuts,' writ large. Giraffes are just one striking addition to what is fast becoming a global phenomenon. It is the threat of fragmentation."

That's why the CBD COP13 is so important, said IUCN director general Inger Andersen. "Many species are slipping away before we can even describe them," she said. "This IUCN Red List update shows that the scale of the global extinction crisis may be even greater than we thought. Governments gathered at the UN biodiversity summit in Cancun have the immense responsibility to step up their efforts to protect our planet's biodiversity."

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