Thursday, February 11, 2016

There Are Only 38 Giraffes Left in the Congo

Conservationists Rush to Save the Congo’s Last 38 Giraffes. Poaching has taken a toll on an already precarious population.
The poaching crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is affecting more than just elephants. New surveys have revealed that the country’s giraffe population has plunged to just 38, putting the species at immediate risk of extinction there.

The Congo’s giraffes all live within Garamba National Park, a 1,930-square-mile UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park, which is run by nonprofit organization African Parks, held more than 350 giraffes two decades ago. Most of those animals were killed during the country’s 1998–2003 civil war, leaving just 86 giraffes afterward. Many of those remaining giraffes have now been lost to poachers.

Park officials have warned that if they lose just five more giraffes, the population may no longer be sustainable on its own.

“Giraffes—like elephants, rhinos, and the like—have been picked off by poachers to feed the illegal wildlife trade and impoverished local people,” said Noëlle Kümpel, cochair of the SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “At the same time, their habitat has been severely and, in many areas, irreparably degraded, leaving very few trees left to sustain even this small population of giraffe.” She said the remaining giraffes—which live in two small herds—have to travel “incredibly long distances” to find food.

The size of the park, combined with the giraffes’ constant need to travel, makes it hard to monitor and protect the animals. The Giraffe Conservation Foundation will travel to Garamba in the next few weeks to assist African Parks in outfitting 12 of the animals with GPS radio collars. Julian Fennessy, the foundation’s executive director, said the collars will “help with ongoing monitoring of the remaining giraffe and guide ranger efforts in their area to fight future potential losses.”

Fennessy has also been advising African Parks on the possibility of building a fence for better protection.

Fences and collars will help, but they won’t be enough to save the giraffes, Kümpel said. “The long-term future of the Garamba giraffe depends on resolving wider, complex sociopolitical issues that go beyond species-focused conservation measures.” That includes meeting the needs of the thousands of hungry refugees who have entered the Congo from neighboring war-torn South Sudan over the past few months. Some of these refugees have been blamed for recent giraffe poaching in the park.

Interestingly, Kümpel said the giraffe itself could help with these issues. The giraffe and a related species called the okapi are “immediately recognizable and popular flagship species that the Congolese people do not want to lose, so they can be used to focus attention on these broader issues and needs for the park.”

Another step might be to import additional giraffes into the park. Garamba officially classifies its giraffes as a unique subspecies, the Congo giraffe, although that taxonomic designation is no longer favored by scientific consensus. Fennessy said the animals are members of a subspecies called the Kordofan giraffe, which also lives in Chad, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic. Kümpel said bringing in individuals from another Kordofan population could boost the Garamba giraffes’ genetic diversity.

The Congo’s giraffes are not alone. Poaching has become a major problem for the animals wherever they live. Their numbers throughout Africa have dropped by more than 40 percent over the past 15 years, wiping out many giraffe populations and even putting entire subspecies at risk of extinction.

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.

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."

Save Nation’s Last 38 Giraffes.
Kordofan Giraffe
Target: U.S. President Barack Obama
Goal: Take immediate action to save the giraffe from extinction in the Congo after it was found that there are only 38 left there.
There are only 38 giraffes left in the Democratic Republic of the Congo according to a recent survey. Rampant poaching and habitat degradation have driven more than elephants to the brink of extinction. According to officials at the Garamba National Park, losing just five more giraffes could leave the population unable to sustain itself without drastic intervention.
Conservationists are now scrambling to save these incredible animals from disappearing forever, but it’s difficult and expensive to even monitor the last of these giraffes as they’re constantly on the move to locate the scarce food left in their scant habitat. They clearly need outside assistance and funding if the Congo’s giraffes stand a chance at survival.
The giraffes need more tracking collars and better protection from poachers. These basics could be easily covered by a grant from the U.S. government. The Congo needs to focus on feeding the refugees from Sudan who may be poaching animals simply so they can eat. Sign our petition to urge the Obama administration to support conservationists in their efforts to save the Congo’s giraffes.
Dear President Obama,
The giraffe in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is in imminent danger of extinction. Poaching and habitat destruction has killed all but 38 giraffes in the nation. If something isn’t done, these unique animals could be lost to the Congo forever, as losing only five more could make it impossible for the giraffe population to sustain itself.
Currently, the Congo is attempting to take care of and feed the refugees pouring in from South Sudan. The nation’s government likely cannot take on the addition expense of saving the last of its giraffes. They need other nations to step up and provide conservationists with the money for better security against poachers, tracking collars, and other equipment they might need to track these wandering animals.
The United States often helps other nations in times of need. If we don’t do something to protect the last of the Congo’s giraffe’s, they could disappear entirely. There may be other giraffes, but the Congo contains a distinct species with unique spots. Biodiversity is also essential to the health of the entire ecosystem in the area, which contains other endangered species like elephants. Please help the Congo with a monetary grant to save these magnificent creatures.
[Your Name Here]
Photo credit: Mathae