Instantly recognizable for their tall bodies and long necks, giraffes play an integral role in our ecosystems just like other species. They are a keystone African herbivore with the ability to completely change the habitats around them. While traversing the landscape to feed all day, giraffes are also pruning and distributing seeds across the terrain. This helps to keep the habitat managed for other wildlife to use.
But, just like other species, giraffes are facing the biggest threats to their survival due to habitat loss, human population growth, poaching, and civil unrest. During the 1980s, the total number of all giraffes in Africa was estimated at approximately 155,000 individuals. Recent reports from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that the current Africa-wide giraffe population totals to less than 100,000 individuals -- a decrease of almost 40%.
GiraffeConservation.org, an international science-based conservation organization that provides innovative approaches to save giraffes in the wild, reported that the numbers of the species in some areas traditionally regarded as prime giraffe habitat have dropped by more than 95%. The four giraffe species have also shown different population trends over the last three decades: populations of northern giraffes have dropped by more than 90%; reticulated giraffes by almost 80%; Masai giraffes by more than 50%, while southern giraffes increased their numbers by more than double.
Last year, researchers from the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission revealed that two giraffe subspecies were critically endangered, thus, classifying them as critically endangered for the first time. These subspecies are the Kordofan giraffe and the Nubian giraffe. Both of them could go extinct in the wild if their numbers continue to dwindle. Dr. Julian Fennessy, Director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, also emphasized that giraffes have been undergoing a silent extinction.
“Whilst giraffe are commonly seen on safari, in the media, and in zoos, people – including conservationists – are unaware that these majestic animals are undergoing a silent extinction. While giraffe populations in southern Africa are doing just fine, the world’s tallest animal is under severe pressure in some of its core ranges across East, Central and West Africa,” Fennessy said.
Governments and conservation organizations are launching efforts to protect not only the majority of giraffe species but also the rare ones. Thus, the recent killings of two rare white giraffes are a major blow to all conservation efforts.
Two Rare White Giraffes Spotted in 2017
In June 2017, locals in Kenya saw white giraffes living near the Ishaqbini Hirola Conservancy in Garissa county. They immediately reported them to the rangers from the Hirola Conservation Program and located the rare species. “They were so close and extremely calm and seemed not disturbed by our presence. The mother kept pacing back and forth a few yards in front of us while signaling the baby giraffe to hide behind the bushes—a characteristic of most wildlife mothers in the wild to prevent the predation of their young.”
But this isn’t the first time that white giraffes were spotted in eastern Africa. According to Smithsonian Mag, the official journal published by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., a white giraffe was seen in Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park in January 2016. Sightings of these species have also occurred as far back as 1938 and they have also been seen in 1956, 2005, 2011 and 2015.
The rare white giraffes, a mother and child, suffer from a genetic condition called leucism, which inhibits pigmentation in skin cells. This is different from albinism, a genetic mutation that prevents the body from producing any pigment. Animals with leucism continue to produce dark pigment in their soft tissue, thus, explaining the white giraffes’ dark eyes and other colorings. Despite their condition, they don’t face genetic disadvantages to their survival.
The Recent Killings
The white giraffes were living a peaceful life in the Ishaqbini Hirola Conservancy until they were recently killed by poachers. The fate of these species was discovered after the Kenya Wildlife Service started to look for them because both the mother and the child hadn't been seen for a period of time. “This is a very sad day for the community of Ijara and Kenya as a whole. We are the only community in the world who are custodians of the white giraffe,” Mohammed Ahmednoor, manager of the Ishaqbini Hirola Conservancy, said.
The deaths of these rare species are particularly upsetting considering the fact they are the only known white giraffes in the world. The park officials reported that the condition in which the two carcasses were found suggests that the animals had likely died about four months ago. The poaching highlights the threats animals continue to face.
According to National Geographic, an American pay television network and flagship channel that is owned by National Geographic Partners, this emphasizes how social media puts animals at increasing risks while people experience the joy and wonder of the planet’s rarest creatures. It’s not a secret that rarity and exclusivity are among the driving factors of the illegal wildlife trade. Thus, unusual animals are more likely to be targeted by poachers.
A 2016 study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B reported that rare species are irreplaceable when it comes to the functionality of ecosystems. Thus, when they are removed or killed, ecological processes may be altered with cascading consequences for other plants and animals. "We measured the ecosystem services provided by each species as determined from their key morphological and physiological features. The results of this study are compelling because we find consistent effects of rare species loss reducing the functional diversity of communities across three very different groups of organisms,” botanist Christopher Baraloto said.
This only shows that rare species just like white giraffes are even more important than originally believed. The tragic loss poses a threat to the local economy which relies largely on wildlife tourism and also a lost research opportunity. “This is a long-term loss. Given that genetics studies and research which were significant investment into the area by researchers has now gone down the drain,” Mohammed Ahmednoor, the manager of IHCC, said in a statement.