We hear a lot about the plight of elephants, the largest living land animal. Now some some unsettling news shines the increasingly bright spotlight of extinction on the tallest land animal, giraffes.
This week the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) determined that the giraffe population has shrunk so significantly over the last few decades that the animal should be moved from "Least Concern" to "Vulnerable" on the official watch list of threatened and endangered species worldwide. Giraffes are the only mammal whose status changed on the list this year.
There are far fewer giraffes in the wild than elephants, with just under 100,000 accounted for in 2015, down nearly 40% from 1985.
With the giraffe population falling so quickly even as these majestic animals remain common on safaris, in the media, and in zoos, people are referring to their downfall as a "silent extinction."
"There's a strong tendency to think that familiar species (such as giraffes, chimps, etc.) must be OK because they are familiar and we see them in zoos," Duke University conservation biologist Stuart Pimm told the AP. Pimm has criticized the IUCN for not putting enough species on the threat list.
Stephanie Fennessy, co-director and co-founder of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF), said that the main threat to giraffes is human population, including "habitat loss, habitat destruction and fragmentation, illegal hunting in some areas as well was civil unrest."
"We hear increasing stories that gangs poaching elephant and rhino will kill giraffe for their meat," she said.
The recent first-ever global assessment of the impact of bushmeat hunting, or wild meat, warned that if major changes aren’t made to limit human consumption and killing of these animals, many of them could reach the point of extinction. Bushmeat is a traditional food source for many rural communities in Asia, South America, and Africa. But as hunting practices become commercialized and inroads are made into even the most remote wild areas, the mammals relying on these ecosystems are no match for the hunting and trapping now taking place.
Fennessy hopes the more critical status will help increase conservation support for the African government and bring giraffes officially onto the international conservation agenda for the first time.
"In the end, giraffes can only be saved in Africa, but it is important to draw attention to their plight," she said. "That's why we work with many international partners including zoos to educate people, raise awareness and funding."
Of the nine currently recognized subspecies of giraffe, five have decreasing populations, three are increasing, and one is stable. Giraffes are widespread across southern and eastern Africa, with smaller isolated subpopulations in west and central Africa.
The IUCN "Red List" of threatened species is the scientific authority on what animals and plants face extinction. At the latest meeting of this biodiversity organization, the IUCN increased the threat level for 35 species, including giraffes, and lowered the threat level for seven species.
The latest edition of the IUCN Red List now contains over 85,000 species in total with more than 24,000 threatened with extinction.
The classification of giraffes as vulnerable fits into a trend of large animals facing “double jeopardy” of extinction—the combination of social and biological factors that together create extreme risk of extinction.
While large megafauna like elephants, hippos, rhinos, and giraffes only make up about 5% of protected species, their killing is highly controversial and intensely scrutinized by a public that has deemed them banner species to rally around for the cause of animal conservation. If something isn’t done to protect them soon, they will eventually fall prey to human-driven extinction like many other large mammals that no longer roam the Earth.