A bold plan to save Africa’s shrinking giraffe herds

The mysterious, silent giants face increasing threats in Africa. Relocating animals to create new populations could bolster some species but poses new risks.

A Texas taxidermy shop displays a fresh giraffe trophy. Cardboard strips and pins hold the skin in place while it dries on a giraffe-shaped styrofoam form. Giraffe numbers have dropped by 40 percent in 30 years, to about 110,000 in the wild.
Photograph by David Chancellor

Of all the large African mammals that wildlife veterinarian Pete Morkel has had to capture over his career—lions, forest elephants, white rhinos—giraffes are the most stressful. “With other animals, you’re trying to give just enough anesthetic to immobilize them, but with a giraffe, we use a total overdose to chemically knock them off their feet,” the sun-leathered 59-year-old tells me as I stalk him stalking a two-year-old female giraffe somewhere in the Nigerien bush, about 60 miles east of Niamey, Niger’s capital. He is wearing a camo hat and a pair of torn, purple-checkered boxers that he’s been wearing as shorts for the past several days.

Morkel has loaded his dart gun with a dose of etorphine, an opioid about 6,000 times more powerful than morphine. Once it penetrates the giraffe’s skin, he and his team will have just minutes to chase down the animal, tackle her, and inject her neck with an antidote to keep her from dying. If she can be successfully captured and survive a 500-mile translocation across Niger, she’ll become one of eight founding “Adams” and “Eves” of a new population of one of the world’s rarest wild mammals.

The giraffes we have chased for a week are the descendants of some 50 animals that made their way to the West African country of Niger in the late 1980s, when drought and war pushed them from their habitat in neighboring Mali. They walked south-southeast across the Sahel, along the Niger River, and skirted Niamey before settling in the Koure region, on a dry and dusty plateau.

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