The world’s tallest animal species—the giraffe—may actually be several species, and some of them are highly threatened with extinction, according to new genetic studies supported by the Wildlife Conservation Society.
The genetic evidence indicates that there may be at least six species of giraffe in Africa, whereas the existing taxonomy recognizes only one. The study appears in the latest edition of BMC Biology.
“Some of these giraffe populations number only a few hundred individuals and need immediate protection,” said WCS Associate David Brown, the lead author of the study and a geneticist at UCLA. He is a founding member of the International Giraffe Working Group (IGWG). “Lumping all giraffes into one species obscures the reality that some kinds of giraffe are on the very brink.”
“Giraffes are often overlooked in conservation initiatives, but they are as symbolic of African wilderness as any other species,” said Dr. James Deutsch, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Africa Program. “Studies such as this one will help us inform conservation plans to save the most threatened giraffe populations.”
Classifying current subspecies as fully fledged species will force a re-examination of conservation initiatives in order to deal with the needs of each separate species of giraffe. The most threatened potential species include:
-The reticulated giraffe (currently Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata). Found in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, this population was estimated at some 27,000 individuals until the 1990s. Poaching and armed conflicts have decimated this group down to a mere 3,000 individuals.
-The Nigerian giraffe (currently Giraffa camelopardalis peralta): Found in West and Central Africa, these giraffes number only 160 individuals.
-The Rothschild giraffe (currently Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi): Formerly found in western Kenya and Uganda, the last few hundred Rothschild giraffes can only be found in a few protected areas in Kenya and in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda.
The study’s authors also emphasize that all giraffes are under threat, with an estimated 30 percent drop in population numbers over the past decade. The total number of giraffes across Africa is estimated to be under 100,000 individuals, and the numbers are currently under review as part of a continent-wide database project, according to WCS Associate Dr. Julian Fennessey of IUCN, and also a founding member of the IGWG.
On the bright side, the discovery of large antelope herds in Southern Sudan—historically the very center of giraffe evolution—raises hopes that large numbers of giraffe may also exist there. Southern Sudan was off limits to conservationists for two decades due to warfare and instability in the region, until WCS scientists documented the species still there, including their count of 400 giraffes.
The giraffe genetic study was conducted by an interdisciplinary team from the University of California, Los Angeles; Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo; and the Mpala Research Centre in Kenya.
Photo: J. Fennessey