Poachers Are Now Slaughtering Africa's Giraffes

Populations have plunged 40 percent as the animals are killed for their meat, often to feed elephant hunters.

(Photo: Anup Shah/Getty Images)

Nov 20, 2014
John R. Platt covers the environment, technology, philanthropy, and more for Scientific American, Conservation, Lion, and other publications.

Giraffes are on the run.

Reports from around Africa provide new evidence that giraffe poaching in several countries is on the rise, a trend that could further threaten a species that has lost more than 40 percent of its population over the past 15 years. Today fewer than 80,000 giraffes remain in Africa, and three of the nine giraffe subspecies have populations that have fallen below 1,000 animals.

"Poaching is definitely on the increase," said Julian Fennessy, executive director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. "Giraffes are the forgotten megafauna. They're really not getting the attention they deserve."

Poaching isn't pervasive throughout the continent, but it is particularly problematic in Tanzania, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he said.

Tanzania, which displays the giraffe as its national symbol, is a poaching hot spot. About 10 years ago herbal medicine practitioners in Tanzania started touting giraffe bone marrow and brains as a way to protect people from, or even cure, HIV/AIDS.

The belief continues to drive poaching in the country, according to a recent report from Tanzania's Daily News. The practice has also driven up the prices for giraffe meat, making poaching more lucrative. A 2010 report from Rothschild's Giraffe Project found that "freshly severed heads and giraffe bones" can bring in up to $140 each.

Tanzania, which is also the site of massive levels of elephant poaching, typifies another reason for giraffe poaching: The animals are killed to feed the people who are hunting elephants. This also happens in the Congo, Fennessy said, where the Lord's Resistance Army, run by the notorious Joseph Kony, has been known to operate. "Giraffe are suffering as a result of indiscriminate killing for ivory," Fennessy said.

Outside this criminal activity, the bushmeat trade remains one of the driving forces behind giraffe killing.

Poachers "get a big bang for their buck because giraffes are an easy kill compared to other ungulates and you get a lot of meat," said David O'Connor, an ecologist with the San Diego Zoo's Institute for Conservation Research.

Giraffes are usually killed with rifles or in steel-wire snares, which can be set either to target giraffes or to catch any animal that walks by. Kenya and Tanzania are the worst countries for this poaching, Fennessy said.

All of this is going on without much public notice, said Kathleen Garrigan, media relations officer for the African Wildlife Foundation.

"The giraffe, though, plays an important role in the ecosystem and is one of Africa's iconic species," she said. "To lose them simply because we weren't paying attention would be tragic."

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