Giraffes capture our imagination in a way few other animals do. They are, like us, mammals; but unlike us, they see and experience the world in a way that is fascinatingly different. In honor of the birth of the newest member of our giraffe family, Kijiji, today we’ll take a look at why giraffes are so incredible, the perils facing wild giraffes and what we can do to keep giraffes from disappearing in our lifetime.
Giraffes are the world’s tallest mammals. An adult male may be 18 feet tall and weigh 2,500 pounds. One of the iconic features of the giraffe is its elongated neck, which contains seven bones, exactly the same number of bones in a human neck. Browsing is aided by an 18-inch-long tongue that grasps leaves and branches. Dark purple-black coloration protects the giraffe’s tongue from sunburn.
These towering denizens of the savannah serve as lookouts for their shorter fellow animals. Their keen sight and hearing, combined with a higher vantage point, lets them see predators approaching from long distances away. Giraffe calves are vulnerable to many different predators and use a combination of protection from adult giraffes and camouflage to avoid attacks from lions, leopards and hyenas. Healthy adult giraffes have little to fear from any but the largest and most determined prides of lions, which contributes to their long lifespans (up to 25 years) in the wild.
Giraffes also possess one of the most unforgettable aromas of any mammal. They produce a combination of 13 different compounds in their skin that not only give them a special and distinct scent, but also serve to help repel flies and other pests.
Giraffes are currently experiencing a “silent” extinction. While many people around the world are aware of the plight of iconic wildlife such as the elephant, rhino and polar bear, fewer are aware of the steady decline in numbers of giraffe across Africa. Over the last three decades, giraffe populations have dropped 40 percent, leaving less than 100,000 giraffes in the world. In 2016, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature changed the status of giraffes from “Least Concern” to “Vulnerable,” just one step below endangered. The giraffe has already been declared extinct in seven countries that were part of its historical range.
The threats to giraffes are varied and complex. Giraffes reproduce slowly, with every 14-month pregnancy resulting in one offspring, rarely twins. This means that giraffe populations naturally replenish themselves in a slow fashion. Deaths from non-natural causes, such as poaching, can have an effect on local giraffe populations that lasts for generations. Habitat loss and fragmentation are also problems. As human populations expand, giraffes lose space in favor of urban development, agriculture, roads and industry. Africa’s rich reserves of oil, gas and minerals have also created a high demand for setting aside land for mining, drilling and the infrastructure that supports these activities, such as roads, railways and ports.
The good news is that Association of Zoos and Aquarium-accredited zoos like Lee Richardson Zoo have been working hard over the past five years to spread the word about imperiled giraffes. The giraffe is one of many species that now have a dedicated AZA initiative called a Saving Animals From Extinction Program. The Giraffe SAFE Program works with zoos around the country, as well as partner organizations in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania to raise awareness about giraffe conservation, perform research to help wild giraffes and implement practical solutions to help protect giraffes. Over the last four years, Giraffe SAFE Program members have contributed nearly a million dollars to projects working to save giraffes in Africa.
World Giraffe Day, June 21, was a day when we asked everyone to #standtallforgiraffes and help us save them from extinction. However, there’s no reason you can’t help save giraffes every day! Simple actions like recycling electronic devices helps reduce the amount of minerals and metals that are mined in giraffe habitats. Look for Fair Trade Federation, Bird Friendly or Rainforest Alliance seals on cocoa powder, chocolate and coffee, three of Africa’s major agricultural exports to the United States, to know you’re getting a product that doesn’t harm habitats crucial to animals like giraffes. Finally, enjoying close encounters with our rhinos and giraffes at the zoo helps us raise funds to contribute to conservation initiatives like the Giraffe SAFE Program. Time is running short for the world’s tallest mammal. Stand tall with us to help save them.
Sarah Colman is general curator at Lee Richardson Zoo.