The Rothschild's giraffe is the latest charismatic African mammal to be classified as Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on its Red List, following recent analysis by a former Earthwatch scientist.
The declaration by the IUCN adds to the growing number of species under threat of extinction. The analysis was carried out by Dr Julian Fennessy, co-founder and trustee of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF), and R Brenneman. Earthwatch supported Dr Fennessy's earlier research into elephants and giraffes in Namibia with Earthwatch volunteers during 2002 and 2003. Rebecca Muddeman, who joined the project in Namibia as an Earthwatch volunteer in 2002, is also one of the founders and a trustee of GCF.
The Rothschild's giraffe is now classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
Dr Fennessy's analysis indicates that Rothschild's giraffe populations are in peril and the IUCN Red List assessment supports this. There are currently nine recognised giraffe sub-species and the Rothschild's is the second most imperilled, with fewer than 670 individuals remaining in the wild. Historically ranging across western Kenya, Uganda, and southern Sudan, it has been almost totally eliminated from most of its former range and now survives in only a few small and isolated populations in Kenya and Uganda.
In Kenya, all known wild populations of Rothchild's giraffe have been eradicated by agricultural development and remnant populations are confined to national parks, private properties and other protected areas. These remaining populations are physically isolated from one another making it impossible for them to interbreed and population growth is further hindered as a result of the closed nature of these conservation areas which have reached or exceeded their carrying capacities.
However, there is still hope for the species. Sixty per cent of the world's remaining wild population of Rothschild's giraffe are found in Kenya (with the remainder in Uganda), a country that has recently shown its commitment to giraffe conservation. With the launch of a National Giraffe Conservation Strategy, the first giraffe-focussed conservation action plan of its kind, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) is leading the way. This strategy will work to conserve all three of the giraffe sub-species found in Kenya, in particular the Endangered Rothschild's giraffe. Its development marks a first in giraffe conservation and raises awareness of the urgent need to conserve these animals.
Although we have knowledge of low population figures, and know enough to declare the species as ‘Endangered', little research has been done on the ecology and behaviour of Rothschild's giraffe in the wild, and to this end the Rothschild's Giraffe Project was launched in spring 2010. This project seems to provide the first scientific review of Rothschild's behaviour and ecology in the wild, and will provide information about key ecological and habitat requirements necessary for the development and implementation of meaningful conservation initiatives.
Dr Fennessy, well known in African conservation circles for his pioneering work in giraffe conservation, said: "I am delighted and of course saddened at the same time that the Rothschild's giraffe has finally made the IUCN Red List status. We have been striving for this for a while now and hope this will highlight to the world the critical state its tallest creature is in. As the second giraffe sub-species (of nine known) to now be listed as Endangered, we all have our work cut out to form sound conservation strategies to improve the situation in the short, medium and long term. The whole thrust of our work here is to put strategies in place before it is too late - extinction is simply not an option."
GCF is actively supporting the Rothschild's Giraffe Project as well as other giraffe research across Africa.