Welcome to 2017

During the Christmas break three suspected poachers were shot in Bwabwata National Park and the Chinese government announced a ban on the trade in ivory. Clearly, the illegal trade in wildlife products is going to set much of NACSO’s agenda in 2017.

While elephants and rhinos top the news in Namibia, other iconic species such as giraffes are equally endangered. According to some sources, the world’s tallest animal is at risk of extinction after suffering a devastating decline in numbers, with nearly 40% of giraffes lost in the last 30 years, according to the latest ‘red list’ analysis. The list, compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), found the giraffe population had plummeted from about 157,000 to 97,500 over the last 30 years and in consequence the species has jumped two IUCN categories from “least concern” to “vulnerable”. As the human population in Africa rises, habitat loss from farming and deforestation, illegal hunting and the impact of civil wars may be pushing giraffes towards extinction.

Namibia is the only country in Africa which bucks the trend. Here, the giraffe population is expanding. It’s a direction that the founding Director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, Julian Fennessy, would dearly love to see followed throughout Africa.

Fennessy gave a short talk to NACSO late last year, as part of the Natural Resources Working Group’s ‘Information Day’, when conservationists met and exchanged views. In the coming weeks, we will share some of the insights offered by Namibia’s conservationists on this page.

Conservation is not only a wish to see iconic species survive, it is about hard science. Fennessy set out the situation for giraffe populations across Africa, and it’s a bleak picture. Giraffes are killed for meat and for bone carvings, but the greatest problem is lack of habitat as humans expand their farmland, towns and infrastructure.

More than a tenth of Africa’s giraffes are found in Namibia: around 12,000 – almost half of them in Kunene. You can spot them on communal land, private farms, and in national parks. Although giraffes have been part of our heritage for thousands of years (you can find engravings of them at Twyfelfontein), we are only beginning to understand these gentle giants.

Researchers previously split giraffes into several subspecies on the basis of their coat patterns and their geographical location. However, genetic analysis reveals that giraffes are divided into four distinct species that do not interbreed in the wild.

Axel Janke, a geneticist at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, worked on the study. “It was an amazing finding,” he says. He notes that giraffes are highly mobile, wide-ranging animals that would have many chances to interbreed in the wild: “The million-dollar question is what kept them apart in the past.” Janke speculates that rivers or other physical barriers kept populations separate long enough for new species to arise.

Most of the giraffes found in Namibia are the ‘Angolan Giraffe’ species. More endangered are the Reticulated and Masai Giraffes found in Kenya and southern Sudan, and the Northern Giraffe spread thinly across north Africa between the Congo Basin and the Sahara Desert.

Fennessy is co-chair of the IUCN’s giraffe and okapi specialist group. In his words: “Whilst giraffes are commonly seen on safari, in the media and in zoos, people – including conservationists – are unaware that these majestic animals are undergoing a silent extinction. It is time that we stick our neck out for the giraffe before it is too late.”

Steve Felton
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