The Namibian Windhoek
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THE giraffe – an iconic species of African wildlife that is one of the world’s most recognisable animals – has been moved from the « least concern » category to « vulnerable » in the newly released International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of threatened species.

The reclassification of giraffe on the international register reflecting the conservation status of animal species comes in the wake of an overall decline of between 36% and 40% in giraffe populations.

New population surveys estimate a decline in the giraffe population from approximately 151 702 to 163 452 animals in 1985 to 97 562 in 2015, the Namibia-based Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) stated in a press release yesterday.

According to the GCF, five of the nine currently recognised subspecies of giraffe have decreasing populations, while three are increasing, and one is stable.

Giraffes are widespread across southern and eastern Africa, with smaller isolated populations in West and Central Africa.

« While 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, » says Julian Fennessy, director of the GCF.

« With a decline of almost 40% in the last three decades alone, the world’s tallest animal is under severe pressure in some of its core ranges across East, Central and West Africa. As one of the world’s most iconic animals, it is timely that we stick our necks out for giraffes before it is too late, » says Fennessy, who is also the co-chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Giraffe & Okapi Specialist Group, which undertook the updated assessment of giraffes as a species with the GCF and the Zoological Society of London.

The GCF states that human population growth poses the largest threat to giraffes in Africa today. It cites habitat loss and changes through expanding agriculture and mining, illegal hunting, increasing human-wildlife conflict, as well as civil unrest, as factors that are pushing giraffe towards extinction.

Recent genetic research that the GCF and partners carried out on giraffes populations throughout Africa suggested that there are four distinct species of giraffe, instead of only one. However, the IUCN currently only recognises the giraffe as one species, under the scientific name Giraffa camelopardalis.

Should the new genetic findings, which were reported in the journal ‘Current Biology’ three months ago, be confirmed and become widely accepted, it would likely result in three of the four giraffe species being classified as under considerable threat on the IUCN Red List, the GCF noted in the statement it released yesterday.

While giraffe numbers have been in decline across Africa over the past 30 years, the GCF is crediting well-managed conservation efforts for the fact that Namibia’s giraffe population and the distribution of the animals in the country have increased over the same period.

With almost all of the giraffe in the country part of the Angolan giraffe subspecies, Namibia is home to about 12 000 of these animals, of which 6 500 are on private land, 3 500 live in national parks, and about 2 000 are on communal land, the GCF says.

In Angola, the subspecies which carries that country’s name is nearly extinct.