Safeguarding Giraffe Populations From Extinction in East Africa Posted by Jordan Carlton Schaul on June 17, 2014
It is amazing that the tallest and arguably most elegant mammal on Earth has been so overlooked and understudied by the scientific and conservation community to date. Considering the precipitous decline of giraffe populations in recent years, it is also amazing that we are just now celebrating giraffe and advocating for their preservation on a global scale.
Most would agree that the giraffe has never been elevated to the status of iconic species like the elephant, panda, or killer whale, but the giraffe is justifiably deserving of much respect and admiration.
Really, few animals are as charismatic as the giraffe or as spectacular to watch in the wild. There is no other animal in the world even remotely similar to the modern-day long-necked giraffe, which is found only in sub-Saharan Africa.
The giraffe has been understudied because of what it is not. It is not harvested, nor has it been hunted for bushmeat until recently, and it bears no horns or tusks of interest to Eastern medicinal communities. Giraffe are not aggressive toward people, they do not compete with livestock for food resources because they are browsers, and they are not carriers of communicable diseases.
In other words, they are not implicated in human-wildlife conflict as are other African megafauna, and hence, they are not persecuted in retribution. Therefore no big conservation groups are loudly rallying for conservation of the giraffe. Sadly, you have to be of some controversy to get that kind of attention, and these “tall blondes” of the animal kingdom tend to stay out of trouble. Giraffes are anything but controversial. They are quiet and pacific indeed, so their decline goes unnoticed.
I recently corresponded with Derek Lee and Monica Bond of the Wild Nature Institute. The wildlife biologists are currently studying Masai giraffe demography in the fragmented Tarangire Ecosystem in northern Tanzania. Tanzania supports the largest population of giraffes in the world. Tarangire and Lake Manyara national parks are known to be one of the best places to see huge herds of elephants, populations of tree climbing lions, and a nearly infinite number of termite mounds. However, scientists are only beginning to learn about the Masai giraffe, the national animal of Tanzania and the largest of the nine recognized subspecies.
Deforestation, habitat conversion to agriculture, and bushmeat poaching are the principal threats to giraffe throughout Africa. Yet many people are unaware of the plight of giraffe, which is an indicator species of the health of African savanna ecosystems. Giraffe experts believe worldwide numbers have declined about 40 percent over the past decade to only about 80,000 today.
Wild Nature Institute and its partner Dartmouth College are the first team to study the population trends of this spectacular ungulate species in the Tarangire Ecosystem, which hosts the second-highest density of giraffe after the Serengeti. According to Ms. Bond, digital photography and pattern-recognition software identify and track individuals throughout their lives and are excellent, modern, noninvasive tools for studying populations of giraffe. Giraffe pelage patterns are unique to each individual and remain the same from birth to adulthood. “This relatively new methodology is ideal because we can track many hundreds of giraffe without having to physically capture the animals, which is both traumatic and expensive,” said Ms. Bond.
They have been collecting data for three consecutive years, sampling more than 1,500 giraffe over a 1,700 square-kilometer area, and they plan to continue the study for as long as possible. According to Ms. Bond, “As of now, ours is the biggest-ever demography study of giraffe, and one of the biggest individually based demography studies of a large mammal ever conducted.”
The study aims not only to understand factors affecting survival and reproduction in landscapes subjected to different human uses, including parks and village lands, but also to identify important calving grounds and identify critical movement pathways for Masai giraffe in the Tarangire Ecosystem. They are also pinpointing poaching hotspots and documenting its effects on giraffes. Their ultimate goal is to arm land managers with the most effective conservation measures to preserve the national animal not only in this important area—the Tarangire Ecosystem—but also in other similarly fragmented systems around Africa.
Scientific research will help, but much remains to be done to safeguard a future for wild giraffe. This includes translating research results into on-the-ground conservation. On June 21 and beyond, wildlife biologists, land managers, government officials, conservation organizations, and members of the public can work together to stand tall for giraffe and help reverse its trend towards extinction.
Collectively giraffe are listed as a species of Least Concern in the IUCN RED LIST. At last count, there were as few as 300 West African giraffe, 1,100 Rothchild’s Giraffe, and 650 Nubian giraffe in the wild. Although some subspecies populations are declining, others are actually vanishing.
Fortunately, last year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Species Survival Commission designated a new specialist group—the Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group (GOSG). (Derek Lee is also a member of the GOSG.) It is hoped that the establishment of the GOSG “will help to attract and strengthen international support for the giraffe and provide an official forum for the implementation of essential conservation strategies.”
This June 21st, please visit the World Giraffe Day website. This new initiative launched by the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) celebrates the giraffe on longest day of the year, in a tribute to the longest-necked mammal on the planet.
Dr. Jordan Schaul is a zoologist, journalist and animal trainer based in Portland, Oregon. For more of his posts in National Geographic News Watch, please click here.
We saw a group of baby hyraxes romping around the rocks in Tarangire National Park. These small mammals are often mistaken for rodents but they are actually genetically related to elephants, manatees, and dugongs!
Study: Species disappearing far faster than before
BY SETH BORENSTEIN
AP Science Writer
May 29, 2014
Species of plants and animals are going extinct 1,000 faster than they did before humans, with the world on the verge of a sixth great extinction, a new study says. The study looks at the past and present rates of extinction and found a lower rate in the past than scientists had thought. Because of that it means that species are now disappearing from Earth at a rate about ten times faster than biologists had figured before, said study lead author noted biologist Stuart Pimm of Duke University.
WASHINGTON — Species of plants and animals are becoming extinct at least 1,000 times faster than they did before humans arrived on the scene, and the world is on the brink of a sixth great extinction, a new study says.
The study looks at past and present rates of extinction and finds a lower rate in the past than scientists had thought. Species are now disappearing from Earth about 10 times faster than biologists had believed, said study lead author noted biologist Stuart Pimm of Duke University.
"We are on the verge of the sixth extinction," Pimm said from research at the Dry Tortugas. "Whether we avoid it or not will depend on our actions."
The work, published Thursday by the journal Science, was hailed as a landmark study by outside experts.
Pimm's study focused on the rate, not the number, of species disappearing from Earth. It calculated a "death rate" of how many species become extinct each year out of 1 million species.
In 1995, Pimm found that the pre-human rate of extinctions on Earth was about 1. But taking into account new research, Pimm and his colleagues refined that background rate to about 0.1.
Now, that death rate is about 100 to 1,000, Pimm said.
Numerous factors are combining to make species disappear much faster than before, said Pimm and co-author Clinton Jenkins of the Institute of Ecological Research in Brazil. But the No. 1 issue is habitat loss. Species are finding no place to live as more places are built up and altered by humans.
Add to that invasive species crowding out native species, climate change affecting where species can survive, and overfishing, Pimm said.
The buffy-tufted-ear marmoset is a good example, Jenkins said. Its habitat has shrunk because of development in Brazil, and a competing marmoset has taken over where it lives. Now ,it's on the international vulnerable list.
The oceanic white-tip shark used to be one of the most abundant predators on Earth and they have been hunted so much they are now rarely seen, said Dalhousie University marine biologist Boris Worm, who wasn't part of the study but praised it. "If we don't do anything, this will go the way of the dinosaurs."
Five times, a vast majority of the world's life has been snuffed out in what have been called mass extinctions, often associated with giant meteor strikes. About 66 million years ago, one such extinction killed off the dinosaurs and three out of four species on Earth. Around 252 million years ago, the Great Dying snuffed out about 90 percent of the world's species.
Pimm and Jenkins said there is hope. Both said the use of smartphones and applications such as iNaturalist will help ordinary people and biologists find species in trouble, they said. Once biologists know where endangered species are they can try to save habitats and use captive breeding and other techniques to save the species, they said.
One success story is the golden lion tamarin. Decades ago the tiny primates were thought to be extinct because of habitat loss, but they were then found in remote parts of Brazil, bred in captivity and biologists helped set aside new forests for them to live in, Jenkins said.
"Now there are more tamarins than there are places to put them," he said.
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