‘The sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel before them’, so goes the African proverb. Larger animals are conspicuous and get more attention compared to the smaller ones. Twiga stands tall in the savannah. Its towering frame and keen eyesight epitomise the foresight required in the conservation of endangered species.
Tallest land animal
The giraffe is the tallest of all land animals. An adult male stands at up to 5.5m. They are simultaneously graceful and intimidating, quite a sight to behold. The browsers feed on the leaves of acacia trees that are six metres from the ground with their half-a-metre long tongues, unlike their cousin ungulates grazing on the savannah grass. Their diet is made up of leaves, twigs and fruits from trees. They do not get competition for food from other herbivores while consuming their ‘treetop foliage’. Habitat loss however threatens their major source of nutrition, the acacia tree.
Giraffes have excellent eyesight and see farther than other animals in the savannah. They quickly identify predators like lions and hyenas, lurking in the long savannah grass. They have a powerful kick, and are therefore not the first choice of the predators. Young giraffes are not so lucky, though. Upto 50% end up as dinner for predators. Other herbivores look up to the giraffe as a sentry, to spot danger.
Giraffe with its deadly kick not first choice for predators
Twiga gazes at the lion stalking in the long grass. The prey of the big cat is usually the warthog, or buffalo if it is in a pride. Lions love buffalo meat despite the frenetic fight required to subdue a full grown animal; adult buffaloes put up quite a fight, and the predators may come out the worse in tear. Good things do not come easy, but the temptation is probably equivalent to the thought of a chicken nugget to a typical human carnivore! The taciturn giraffe silently watches all this activity from its elevated vantage point; the bellowing buffaloes, roaring lions, snorting zebras. The giraffe’s most dangerous predator is the human being, although they do occasionally fall prey to a pride of lions or a pack of hyenas.
Being conspicuous is a double-edged sword. Giraffes are ubiquitous and can be readily spotted in a safari in most game parks in the savannah. They are experiencing a ‘silent extinction’ due to poaching, habitat destruction, trophy hunting and ecological changes resulting from climate change. The species reduced by 36 – 40 percent between 1985 and 2015. The worldwide population is now 100,000 from 150,000 some thirty years ago. Giraffe, initially thought to be doing just fine, is now classified by International Union for Conservation of Nature IUCN as vulnerable to extinction, with some of the sub-species considered to be ‘critically endangered’.
Human beings continue to encroach on wildlife areas, further decreasing the land available to the animals. Burgeoning populations are clearing forests and claiming ever more land for agriculture and housing. Giraffes are particularly vulnerable to the degradation of their natural habitat since trees provide their primary diet. They are also large animals and require plenty of space. The ravages of climate change also greatly impacts on survival of species. Changes in the weather result in longer droughts and new diseases.
Poachers target giraffe for its flesh, hide and tail. Giraffes are hunted in the Congo for cultural practices, with the target being the tail that is used in making good-luck bracelets and fly whisks. They are also illegally killed by trophy hunters, following a hunting ban in many countries.
Bush meat in the butchery
Why would anyone want to eat giraffe meat, with beef so plentiful? Poachers in Kenya targeting giraffe are often small-time operators with clients in the local butcheries. A DNA analysis of meat sold in butcheries adjoining game-parks in Kenya found evidence of giraffe, gazelle and buffalo meat. Game (bush) meat is in this case mixed with beef, with the final consumer none the wiser. Other butcheries offer undisguised game meat as a delicacy to curious tourists.
Poaching giraffe for meat in South Sudan is carried out by villagers, whereas in Tanzania and Kenya giraffes suffer collateral losses as a result of poaching for other species. Elephant poachers have been known to hunt giraffes for meat as they track the elephant. In this case they are not the first choice for the poachers, but suffer the consequences all the same.
The collateral peril to Twiga in elephant poaching re-emphasises the giraffe’s sentry role for the decimation taking place in the savannah as a whole. Increased giraffe poaching is indicative of gearing up of poaching of other species and provides us with an early warning of the slaughter.
The poachers in the savannah are decimating the rhinoceros and elephants. Rhinos are poached at the rate of three per day. They are poached for their horns, reputed to be aphrodisiacs and a cure for all manner of diseases including cancer. China and Vietnam are the top consumer countries for rhino horn. The horn sells at over $60,000 per kilo, worth more than gold! All indications are that their utility as medicine or aphrodisiac have the same efficacy as your finger or toe nails. Crazy humans….
Rhinos and elephants facing extinction
The subspecies of the northern white rhino number only two, after the death of Sudan, the last known northern white rhinoceros on March 19, 2018. The southern white rhinoceros are more, at about 20,000. The number of black rhinos has declined from 100,000 in 1960 to only 4,000 in the wild. Adult rhinos have no predators other than human beings. Africa’s rhinos could become extinct within twenty years.
Elephants are killed for their tusks. Ivory can be sold for $2,100 per kilogram in China. A 2014 survey estimated that 100,000 African elephants were poached between 2010 and 2012; An estimated 25,000 to 35,000 elephants were killed for their tusks in 2012 alone. This rate of carnage is unsustainable! African elephants could become extinct within twenty to fifty years.
Lions also killed
The lion that causes so much grief to Twiga is also under threat. They are considered vulnerable to extinction in the IUCN Red List. Their numbers have plummeted in Africa to 20,000, from a high of 200,000 a few years ago. Despite being at the top of the food chain, it has to worry about another predator. And, not for its flesh.
Lions are killed by human beings in a play-out of the human-wildlife conflict. The big cat preys on livestock in habitats adjoining human settlement, leading to pre-emptive and retaliatory killing. They are also victims of loss and fragmentation of habitat as human settlements increasingly encroach in their traditional habitat. Human encroachment on their habitat also impacts on the big cats through the spreading of disease by domestic animals.
Silent giraffe still poorly understood
Giraffes are graceful and have an elegant gait. They are largely silent animals, and indeed there is an urban legend that giraffes are mute. Even people who work closely with them confess to not having heard giraffe sounds apart from the occasional snort!
Adult giraffes rarely make audible sounds. There are suggestions that the giraffe’s long thirteen foot trachea (neck) makes vocalisation physically impossible due to the difficulty of sustaining the required airflow from lungs to mouth over the such a long neck. We should however not keep quiet on their plight.
Twiga is still not well understood. Recent cutting edge research indicates that giraffes do make low humming noises in the infrasonic range, mostly at night. It is still not clear if this is a form of communication, or merely a form of snoring!
Many species are wiped out without being understood.
Technology to the rescue
Protecting animals comes with great risk. About 600 rangers charged with protecting wildlife were gunned down by poachers between 2009 and 2016 while in the line of duty. Poaching is linked to armed conflict in many parts of Africa. Civil unrest impacts the security of wildlife which fall prey to being killed for food. Trade in animal trophy should attract the same opprobrium as ‘blood diamonds’ do.
Emerging technologies should be used to supplement the efforts of the rangers. Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) have proved an effective addition to the arsenal of conservationists and researchers. Many programmes in protection of rhinos already make use of UAS.
More use should be made of satellites in monitoring animals. Remote sensing is already widely used in research on wildlife. Satellite imagery can be used to monitor endangered species. There is a growing abundance and sophistication of satellite imagery. The challenge is now to develop local and homegrown capability in both generation and analysis of the data.
Twilight in the savannah
Twiga’s gaze into the distance indicates to us the available choices. Its future is on the balance. Conservation of wildlife is for the benefit of everyone on the planet. Man, earth’s greatest predator has decimated several species, with at least 300 animal extinctions over the last 500 years.
Will the giraffe escape the fate of other endangered and extinct species? Can human destruction and greed be stemmed in time to allow its survival?
The sun continues shining in the savannah. Will its light and warmth reach Twiga before it suffers the fate of its more unfortunate co-inhabitants on the verge of extinction? Time will tell.