In response to recent scientific consensus on giraffes’ vulnerability to extinction, five wildlife protection groups today petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect Earth’s tallest land animal under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
The legal petition, filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Humane Society International, The Humane Society of the United States, International Fund for Animal Welfare, and Natural Resources Defense Council, seeks “endangered” status for the species.
Giraffes are facing threats from habitat loss, bushmeat hunting, and the international trade in bone carvings and trophies. Africa’s giraffe population has plunged almost 40 percent in the past 30 years and now stands at just over 97,000 individuals. Based upon our work and the work of all the giraffe scientists in the world, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature recently uplisted the Red List giraffe status from ‘least concern’ to ‘vulnerable to extinction’, and this Endangered Species Act listing will establish legal protections to control the market for giraffe parts in the USA.
The Endangered Species Act is one of the world’s strongest and most effective environmental protection laws and has been instrumental in protecting wild natural habitat for rare species and averting extinctions. As a professional conservation biologist, I believe we must make use of every possible tool in our efforts to preserve the ecosystems that support all life on Earth. The Endangered Species Act is one important tool that will regulate the trade in giraffe parts and bring attention to the giraffe’s precarious situation.
We are excited to report that the distribution of our giraffe-themed environmental education materials in Tanzania has been a resounding success. This month's distribution is a follow-up to the teacher’s workshop we hosted last October, where teachers received advance copies of our giraffe storybooks, activity books, and posters, and learned about lesson plans and activities to accompany the books and posters.
Thanks to Wild Nature Institute’s educational consultant, award-winning science teacher Lise Levy, and a terrific community organizer from our partner organization Masai Advancement Association (MAA), over the past month we have delivered a Swahili version of our Juma the Giraffe storybook and Juma poster, another poster about the amazing physiology of giraffes, and an activity book Twiga Na Rafiki Zake (Giraffe and Friends) to more than 4,600 children in 14 schools surrounding Tarangire and Lake Manyara national parks! We will be monitoring how the books and lesson plans are being used, and making more visits to the schools to help implement the fun learning activities.
The goals of our giraffe-themed environmental education project are:
Stay tuned for the next phase of our educational efforts—a new campaign called “Celebrating Africa’s Giants!” This project incorporates Africa's other two terrestrial mega-herbivores, elephants and rhinoceros, into our education and outreach work, and we'll be producing books, posters, games, and other materials to inspire kids in Africa and North America to celebrate and protect these magnificent savanna creatures.
Very special thanks to Kayla Harren (for illustrating and designing Juma the Giraffe), David Brown and Chris Barela (for producing the giraffe physiology poster), and Megan Strauss (for producing Giraffe and Friends). Thanks also to PAMS Foundation for helping to print and distribute these materials.
Listen into a conversation about giraffes with Alex Shoumatoff, a top naturalist and journalist who recently embedded himself in the world of giraffes in Uganda, and Derek Lee, principal scientist of the Wild Nature Institute, whose research focuses on Masai giraffes in Tanzania, with host Jane Clayson and many callers. A 1-hour discussion originally broadcast on WBUR's On Point radio show.
Wild Nature Institute scientists published a new scientific article today in the journal Population Ecology. Our research found that giraffe calves born in the dry season have higher survival. Click here to download "Season of birth affects juvenile survival of giraffe."
In Summary: Drought has left wildebeests and zebras of the Tarangire Ecosystem in northern Tanzania without food or water on their calving grounds, disrupting their normal migration and forcing them to give birth near the Tarangire River.
Tanzania is experiencing a drought after the short rainy season failed to deliver much-needed rainfall during recent months. The landscape across the Tarangire Ecosystem of northern Tanzania is now unseasonably dry, and where the ground would normally be a carpet of green, grasses and herbs are now in short supply. Normally, at this time of year, the long-distance migratory wildlife like wildebeests and zebras would be on their calving grounds on the short-grass plains near Gelai and Simanjiro, far from the Tarangire River. However, the lack of water and food on the calving grounds has forced pregnant wildebeests and zebras to return early to Tarangire National Park to give birth, a disruption of their normal migratory behaviour with uncertain consequences.
The Tarangire Ecosystem is defined by the long-distance migration of wildebeests and zebras between their dry-season range along the Tarangire River in Tarangire National Park, and their wet-season calving grounds on the Northern Plains and Simanjiro Plains outside the park. The reason for the migration is that the greater nutritional content of the grasses on the calving grounds support lactation and calf growth, but the less nutritious grasses near the river do not. Wildlife migrations are an endangered phenomenon in the world and there are only three remaining wildebeest migrations in Africa. The Tarangire migration supports the Tarangire Ecosystem as an important source of wildlife tourism revenue for the country but the ecosystem is largely unprotected and the population of wildebeests has plummeted from 40,000 in the 1980s to only 7,000 today. Conservationists fear this disruption could exacerbate the Tarangire wildebeest’s already precarious situation, which is why Wild Nature Institute has prioritized protection of the Northern Plains migration route.
It remains to be seen whether the wildebeest calves now being born in Tarangire National Park will survive, given the poor forage quality there. If this year’s crop of wildebeest calves is lost due to the drought, the population will have a harder time recovering from its already depleted numbers. On the positive side, the unusual presence of so much easy prey in Tarangire National Park is likely helping the lions and other predators that live there. Lion numbers have been steadily declining in Tarangire due to illegal killing when they leave the safety of the park. Giraffes too should see unseasonably high calf survival as the lions and hyenas concentrate their predation on wildebeests and zebras. The current drought situation highlights the interconnectedness of all parts of a functioning ecosystem, and how a natural disruption can push endangered wildlife populations over the edge when they are already suffering from human-caused habitat loss and illegal killing.
Proposed Forest Thinning Will Sabotage Natural Forest Climate Adaptation and Resistance to Drought, Fire, and Insect Outbreaks
By Derek E. Lee, PhD
The USDA Forest Service is proposing widespread forest thinning on our public lands across the West in a misguided attempt to reduce the impact of drought, fire, and insects (see National Forest Restoration Projects, Sierra Nevada National Forest Land Management Plan Revisions, news articles). These logging schemes are the latest in a series of Forest Service attempts to chainsaw their way out of a perceived problem. However, forests in the western United States have evolved to naturally self-thin uncompetitive trees through forest fires, insects, or disease. Forest fires and other disturbances are natural elements of healthy, dynamic forest ecosystems, and have been for millennia. These processes cull the weak and make room for the continued growth and reproduction of stronger, climate-adapted trees. Remaining live trees are genetically adapted to survive the new climate conditions and their offspring are also more climate-adapted, resistant, and resilient than the trees that perished. Without genetic testing of every tree in the forest, indiscriminate thinning will remove many of the trees that are intrinsically the best-adapted to naturally survive drought, fire, and insects.
Recent studies have demonstrated that genetic variation is high within populations of forest trees, with especially high diversity found at the lower latitudes and altitudes that form the edges of a species’ distribution. Local genetic and epigenetic variation makes some individuals naturally more likely to survive drought, fire, and insect outbreaks. This is because ecotones, or transitional areas, are where each species experiences the most extreme climate conditions that it can survive, the lowest elevation and latitude boundary. These natural edges are where trees with the most resistant and resilient adaptations are found. It is also where significant mortality is to be expected as part of the process where the distribution of tree species shifts north and uphill in our warming climate.
After forest fire or insect-caused mortality, green forest naturally regenerates without any need for expensive human interventions. Locally climate-adapted tree seedlings sprout and grow, and nitrogen-fixing shrubs and forbs replenish the soil and curb erosion. In the meantime, standing dead trees, snags, and logs provide critical food and shelter for many types of wildlife. Seedlings used in most Forest Service replanting efforts are bred for timber production, and although breeding programs are now looking for drought and temperature tolerance, there is a natural breeding program already underway that costs nothing and ensures the most locally adapted individuals will resist and persist as the climate warms.
Weather and climate data are painting a clear picture of warmer, drier summers across most of the western United States. Forest fires are strongly correlated with the Palmer Drought Severity Index where drier years make bigger fires, so people living in fire-prone areas need to be prepared for wildfire as an inevitable occurrence, and take all precautions to protect their homes with defensible space and ember-stopping attic vent screens. Thinning the forest within a hundred yards from structures and some minor fireproof retrofitting are the only practices proven to protect homes and communities from wildfire.
The West is getting drier than it was in the recent past, and that will require some adaptation, particularly in light of the significant recent human population growth in rural areas. We must also understand that recent fires are not unprecedented in size or severity as is often claimed by people who make money cutting our trees. The early 20th century sometimes saw 30 million acres of forest burn, and that was before widespread fire suppression, so fuel buildup is not the looming fire monster some folks who profit from logging have made it out to be. The world is an inherently dynamic and changeable environment, and generally the cost of fighting change is much more expensive than adapting to it.
Studies referred to are:
Kolb, T.E., Grady, K.C., McEttrick, M.P. and Herrero, A., 2016. Local-scale drought adaptation of ponderosa pine seedlings at habitat ecotones. Forest Science, 62(6), pp.641-651.
Prunier, J., Verta, J.P. and MacKay, J.J., 2016. Conifer genomics and adaptation: at the crossroads of genetic diversity and genome function. New Phytologist, 209(1), pp.44-62.
Pinnell, S., 2016. Resin duct defenses in ponderosa pine during a mountain pine beetle outbreak: genetic effects, mortality, and relationships with growth. PhD Thesis, University of Montana, Missoula.
Dr. Derek E. Lee is an independent biologist. Born and raised in the rural West, Dr. Lee writes about the intersection of Western ecology and economy.
Since the announcement that giraffes are Vulnerable to Extinction, many concerned people have asked me what they can do to help save giraffes. Donating money and/or time to conservation groups like Wild Nature Institute is a great first action to help giraffes. Whatever your skill set, there is an important place for you in the giraffe conservation world where you can make a difference. The next step is to raise awareness of the problem within your social circles, and encourage others to donate money or time to saving giraffes. We need volunteers to raise awareness in their home communities, either informally, or by writing, speaking, and contributing to the global conversation about our planet’s biodiversity crisis. Specialized people also can use their career skills by providing advice, services, or goods in their area of expertise that can help the cause. Please let me know what you are interested in and we can craft a personal plan for you to become a a giraffe hero. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Arusha, TANZANIA, 8 December 2016-
The iconic giraffe, one of the world's most recognizable animals and the tallest land mammal, is now threatened with extinction. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world body responsible for maintaining the global Red List of Threatened Species, announced today that giraffes are officially in danger of extinction. The species, found only in Africa, has moved from the Red List category ‘Least Concern’ to ‘Vulnerable’ due to a dramatic 40% decline over the past 30 years. This announcement is the result of a new assessment of giraffes conducted by the world’s leading experts. Dr. Anne Dagg, a prominent pioneer of giraffe research who has been working for nearly 50 years to conserve giraffes said, “We must act now to ensure that these magnificent creatures never become extinct.”
The primary causes for Red Listing the giraffe are Illegal hunting and habitat loss. The largest giraffe populations tend to reside in protected areas such as national parks and reserves, but even giraffes in national parks are not entirely safe. “In protected areas we’re still seeing giraffes threatened by poaching,” says Dr. Megan Strauss, who recently completed a study in Tanzania’s world-famous Serengeti National Park. “Poachers in Serengeti target giraffes with snares hung in the tree canopy and this has contributed to a substantial decline in their numbers.”
Fortunately, the world’s giraffe experts are actively working to conserve the animals they spend their lives researching. The estimated 97,600 giraffes in the world are divided into nine subspecies; five subspecies have decreasing populations, three have increasing populations, and one is stable. The Thornicroft’s giraffe subspecies in Zambia numbers only 600, but a small population was intensively monitored for decades and Dr. Fred Bercovitch, of the University of Kyoto, has used those data to illuminate many aspects of giraffe society and ecology. Dr. Bercovitch said, “With numbers dwindling, conservation action is essential, but requires a solid foundation of accurate knowledge about giraffe biology and ecology.” Dr. Francois Deacon, a giraffe specialist at the University of the Free State in his native South Africa, added, “This vulnerability shows we are quickly losing grip on our last few natural populations.” Dr. Deacon is leading several research and conservation projects to help save giraffes.
Another giraffe hero is John Doherty, whose Reticulated Giraffe Project in Kenya is working to halt and reverse the population decline of its namesake subspecies, which numbers less than 8,000.
With fewer than 2,000 individuals, the Rothchild’s giraffe subspecies is in trouble, but the Rothchild’s Giraffe Project, based in Kenya, is leading research, conservation, and education efforts to save them. The head of the Rothchild’s Giraffe Project, Zoe Muller said, “One of the most important aspects of conservation work must be to communicate the benefits of wildlife to the people sharing their habitat and environment, to local communities.” Giraffes are one of the most important animals supporting the safari tourism industry that generates hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year for African countries. Safari tourism revenues help support protected areas, as well as public health, education, and infrastructure projects all across East and Southern Africa.
Environmental education of both Africans and Americans is the focus of efforts led by Dr. Strauss and giraffe geneticist David Brown. They have developed children’s books, posters, and lesson plans for educators that teach ecological and social lessons using giraffes as the focus. Brown said, “High-quality, culturally relevant educational materials are nurturing the next generation of conservationists and a shared love of giraffes is building bridges between kids on both continents.”
Due to habitat losses across the continent, most giraffes in Africa now exist in fragmented landscapes with heavy human impacts. Dr. Derek Lee, of the Wild Nature Institute in Tanzania, is studying how giraffes use these fragmented landscapes in order to learn how people and giraffes can live together. This is one of the biggest studies of a large mammal ever undertaken, and includes data for more than 2,100 individual Masai giraffes. Masai giraffes are the most numerous subspecies at 31,000, but their population has halved since the 1980s. Dr. Lee said, "There is a great network of giraffe scientists working together to save them from extinction. We all hope this Vulnerable Red Listing will raise public awareness and increase support for giraffe conservation."
Wild Nature Institute is an independent non-profit scientific research, education, and advocacy organization. Monica Bond is a Principal Scientist at the Wild Nature Institute.
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