Always towering among the tree tops, moving languidly through the bush, giraffes are usually the first animals spotted on safari. And yet, the world’s tallest land animal has become among the most rare, now facing extinction.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature placed the giraffe on its red list of threatened species. In a statement Dec. 8, the organization said that giraffes have moved from the category of “Least Concern” to “Vulnerable” due to a dramatic decline in the last 30 years. In 1985 there were between 151,702 and 163,452 giraffes; in 2015 there were 97,562 counted—a decline of nearly 40%.
“The growing human population is having a negative impact on many giraffe subpopulations,” the statement said. Giraffes have been pushed back in their natural habitats in eastern and southern Africa by agriculture, mining, civil unrest and illegal hunting. Smaller isolated populations in central and West Africa are also under threat.
The IUCN passed a resolution calling for increased protection of giraffes and okapis, a smaller relative of the giraffe found in the rainforests of northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
“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,” Julian Fenessy of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation said in a statement.
The conservation fund also hopes that the increased attention on giraffes will bring awareness that recent genetic research showed four distinct giraffe species, rather than just one as is commonly thought and recognized by the IUCN. Conservationists say surprisingly little is known about giraffes.
Legendary conservationist Sir David Attenborough sounded the alarm on the threat facing giraffes in a BBC documentary earlier this year, noting that while the world knew about the danger elephants faced, giraffes are ignored yet their numbers are fewer and they are already extinct in seven countries.
“These gentle giants have been overlooked,” said Attenborough. “Time is running out.”