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Lifestyle July 22, 2017

Sticking Their Necks Out

Last month was World Giraffe Day. It was the fourth annual celebration of its kind, with the date of 21 June picked by the Giraffe Conservation Foundation owing to it being the longest day (or night, for us down under) as tribute to the giraffe’s famed neck. Events around the globe are needed to raise awareness of the plight of this splendid, spotted beast for while most will picture the likes of whales, tigers, or pandas when thinking vulnerable creatures, you may be surprised to hear that there has been giraffe extinction across seven African countries and that on the continent, elephants outnumber them five to one. The decline is due to habitat loss and fragmentation, disease, and, in some parts of Africa, poaching. Giraffe numbers have dropped by almost 40% over the past 30 years.



“Luckily, the tide is turning,” says Stephanie Fennessy, who set up the Namibia-based foundation, the first giraffe charity in the world, with her husband Julian. “When we first started our work 20 years ago, no one was aware of the situation, and it did feel like we were shouting up the hill for quite a while. We recently released a scientific paper proposing that there are four species of giraffe, which found a lot of international attention. As did the listing of the animals as vulnerable by the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature].” What has helped grabbed the public’s attention was recent BBC/PBS documentary Giraffe: Africa’s Gentle Giants, narrated by David Attenborough, that recounted the gangly animals’ predicament — and the GCF play a starring role. (Stephanie laments they didn’t get to meet the legendary British naturalist, though he did send them a handwritten letter. I presume it must have been immediately framed? “It was,” Stephanie chuckles, “but he wrote on both sides of the same page, so he didn’t make it easy for us!”)



Giraffes are meticulously recorded by way of their spots — each animal’s patterns are individual, like a fingerprint. As if visualising images from clouds in the sky, the pair see shapes in their charges’ markings — while Stephanie may see a butterfly, Julian jokes that like a good Aussie male he’ll more likely see “a beer!” Their enthusiasm and dedication to preventing a “silent extinction” is an inspiration. What began as a hobby nearly two decades ago has morphed into a full-time endeavour.




“We work with many zoos around the world,” Stephanie tells me. “It’s a great source of funding as well as an opportunity to get the giraffe conservation message out there. We are a really small organisation, with limited marketing and communications expertise, but zoos have instant access to a captive audience of millions. Their giraffes are great ambassadors for their wild cousins.”



One such zoo is Auckland Zoo, which has been financially supporting the GCF for more than five years and had staff assist in the field. Last year, its Pridelands team leader Nat Sullivan traveled to Namibia to help the GCF team with surveying and capturing giraffes to fit them with GPS collars to better understand their threats and movements. “Without doubt, it was the best experience of my life,” Nat says. “These were a specific population of desert-dwelling giraffe, and it was incredible to see how they adapted to be in this environment. It highlighted to me just how important the work is that Julian, Steph and their team are doing. I love being able to talk to zoo visitors and share my passion and involvement in helping giraffes on the ground. Many people don’t realise giraffe are in trouble. Without the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and their partners, these majestic animals would still be the forgotten mega fauna.”



Relocating animals that can weigh 1,200kg is time consuming, costly, and dangerous both for the giraffes and those involved — their kicks are powerful enough to make male lions think twice about approaching them. When the charity worked with the Uganda Wildlife Authority on translocating an 18-strong herd in Uganda last year — a trip that invovled crossing the Nile — it took the team two weeks.



As the situation garners more publicity, then more governments and NGOs are getting on board. “There has never been anyone fighting for giraffes before,” says Stephanie. “They’ve had no champion, no-one in their corner.”



While every animal plays a role in the ecosystem, the giraffe, she adds, is an African icon: “When people come over on safari, they normally have a list that includes lions, leopards, cheetah and elephants. They don’t often mention giraffes because they just presume they’ll see them as they are so quintessentially African. So, we say to them, ‘Just imagine what it would be like if they were gone.’ It would be a tragedy.”




Giraffes by Numbers

  • A giraffe’s neck can grow to nearly 2m — around the same length as its legs.
  • But just like ours, the neck contains just seven vertebrae.
  • Giraffe numbers have declined by almost 40% in the past 30 years, to less than 100,000.
  • An adult male can grow to nearly 6m, taller than three average men.
  • A giraffe’s tongue is around 50 cm long.
  • The giraffe has the largest heart of any land animal (it can weigh over 11kg!).
  • The Herculean herbivores can munch 45kg of vegetation per day.
  • A new born giraffe is introduced to the world via a near-2m drop to the ground from its mother.
  • The baby giraffe is around the same height as an adult male human.
  • Scientists now believe that there are 4 different species of giraffe.
  • Their lifespan is believed to be at least 25 years.



Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces
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