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
This story appears in the October 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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.

A Fulani herder named Amadou Hama, 76, recalled what it was like decades ago when he first encountered one of these giraffes one evening while tending his cattle. “We thought it was the devil, because of that neck and those horns. People had told me about dangerous animals like lions, but nobody had ever told me about the giraffe. We were frightened. Even the cows were frightened.”

These newly arrived giants were the last survivors of a once vast population of “white giraffes” whose range at the turn of the last century spanned all of West Africa, from the coast of Senegal to Nigeria.

In 2016 a team of scientists came to an epiphany (if still contentious) about giraffes. Until then, the conventional view held that all giraffes belonged to a single species, Giraffa camelopardalis. But genetic analysis now suggests that giraffes are in fact four distinct species, actually more different from each other than the brown bear is from the polar bear. And those four species can be further classified into five subspecies, including the rare West African Giraffa camelopardalis peralta, the pale, spotted refugees now found only in the Koure region of Niger. Based on this new taxonomy, all but two subspecies would be considered vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered, and across Africa, populations have declined by almost 40 percent over the past three decades, leaving an estimated 110,000 giraffes in the world.

Julian Fennessy, co-director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF), calls this the “silent extinction,” because unlike the attention lavished on the disappearance of elephants and great apes, most people assume that giraffes are doing just fine in the wild, perhaps because of their abundance in zoos and as stuffed animals.

And in fact, in some parts of Africa giraffes are doing fine. In South Africa and Namibia, where private game farms boost wildlife numbers and giraffes are hunted legally, populations have nearly doubled in recent decades. But in East Africa, the reticulated and Masai species of giraffe face a much grimmer outlook. “What’s killing giraffes in southern Kenya is fences. They’re an even bigger threat than poaching. Giraffes can’t jump over fences, which means their ranges are being fragmented,” says Arthur Muneza, the East Africa coordinator of the GCF. Population growth, livestock overgrazing, and climate change are pushing pastoralists and farmers into wildlands and giraffe habitat. Meanwhile the population of Nubian giraffes, found mostly in Uganda, has declined by as much as 97 percent over the past 30 years, making them one of the world’s most critically endangered large mammals.

The giraffes of Niger are scarcer still, and yet, from a low point of just 49 individuals in 1996, the population of West African giraffes has bounced back to more than 600 in the past two and a half decades. Their return is one of the greatest conservation success stories on the continent. It is also one of the most unlikely.

Niger ranks dead last out of 189 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index—a measure of life expectancy, schooling, and national income—and conserving wildlife had not traditionally been a priority of the country. In 1996, after a coup d’etat, the new president of Niger, Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara, sent the army into the bush to capture a group of animals to present as gifts to the presidents of nearby Nigeria and Burkina Faso. Not a single captured giraffe survived the operation, and the population of West African giraffes fell by nearly a third. Three years later, two more animals died when the next president tried to send a gift to the leader of Togo.

The dire situation, and the recognition that the last West African giraffes were a precious and rare wildlife resource in a country that has few others, led Niger in 2011 to craft the first national conservation strategy in Africa for protecting giraffes. With poaching all but quashed by the government and without any natural predators, the population of giraffes in Koure has been able to grow. As the population exploded at a rate of more than 11 percent a year, conflict with farmers and herders seemed inevitable. It was clear that for Niger’s giraffe numbers to continue growing and to remain healthy, a second satellite population would need to be established in a new location.

A day earlier I’d gone to the nearby village of Kanaré to speak with the local chief, Hamadou Yacouba. Sitting under the bushy canopy of a neem tree to shade us from the midday sun, he explained that “giraffes are considered like domesticated animals here. God placed the giraffes here, so we live with them. The other countries didn’t get giraffes. We got them.”

Kanaré has benefited from a bit of giraffe tourism and a local development fund created by international conservationists. But with Boko Haram active in the country’s east and al Qaeda affiliates operating in the country’s north and west, tourism has slowed to a trickle. The giraffes were visited by just 1,700 tourists last year, mostly well-to-do Niamey residents on day-trips.

There has been a remarkable rewilding of Africa during the past decade as conservationists have reintroduced long-departed species, such as Chad’s scimitar-horned oryx, to areas that once were part of their home ranges. In the past two years the GCF has orchestrated three other giraffe translocations, including two inside Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park, which required ferrying animals across the Nile River.

In Niger, an assessment of the country’s potential habitats determined the safest place to park a second population of West African giraffes was on 2.5 million uninhabited acres in Gadabedji, an area in the center of the country that has been designated as a biosphere reserve. It’s a hot spot for vultures and gazelles, and 50 years ago the area was host to ancestors of these giraffes as well.

Wildlife officials load three Rothschild’s giraffes into a truck lined with leafy branches for the animals to snack on during their journey to a new part of Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park. The trio was part of a project that relocated 19 of the endangered giraffes.
Wildlife officials load three Rothschild’s giraffes into a truck lined with leafy branches for the animals to snack on during their journey to a new part of Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park. The trio was part of a project that relocated 19 of the endangered giraffes.

The translocation is not without critics. “If giraffes are in danger in their present location, why are their numbers augmenting? It simply doesn’t make sense,” says Isabelle Ciofolo, an ethologist who joined the local conservation efforts in Koure in the mid-1990s. “To the extent possible, it is best to leave the giraffes to their own natural tendencies in determining which habitat is suited to their needs.”

She points out that the giraffes of Niger have shown they can roam up to 180 miles. “If there is a menace in one place, they are perfectly capable of finding a new habitat on their own.”

"Good girl. What a sweetie pie," Morkel whispers to himself as he creeps closer to the unsuspecting giraffe. He estimates the animal at about 1,500 pounds, sets the pressure in his rifle to 12 bar for a 100-foot shot, and turns the safety off. It’s 1 p.m., and the temperature has just hit 100°F.

“I’ve never had this sort of situation where you can walk right up to a giraffe. Normally, you’re in a pickup, shooting them from a distance,” Morkel tells me. But these are strange creatures, not least because they live on community land, far from any game reserve or national park, and spend their days crossing paths with farmers and herders. At night they bust their heads through the walls of the locals’ elevated beehive-shaped granaries and eat the cowpea leaves that villagers store for their livestock, as well as their mangoes and pumpkins. Fortunately for everyone, the one food they mysteriously have no taste for is millet, the nutritious local cereal staple.

Morkel raises the gun to his shoulder and pulls the trigger, sending his etorphine-laden dart sailing into the animal’s left shoulder, a direct hit, but it will take several minutes for the drug to kick in.

The sedation of wild giraffes is a relatively new practice that has been refined over the past 30 years and carries major risks. The animal can stop breathing from a lethal dose of opioid. It can fall headfirst and crack its skull, or break its long back or spindly legs. It can regurgitate partly digested food and inhale it into its lungs, leading to pneumonia. And it can overheat while lying on the scorching sand. During a 2017 translocation in Uganda, three animals died from stresses related to being captured, and another died while it was being moved.

While we wait for the drug to kick in, Morkel and I walk back to a waiting pickup truck filled with a team of rangers and researchers. “This is a hard species to work with,” Morkel says. “There’s a long way to fall, and a lot of unique anatomy.”

Everything about this creature’s anatomy indeed seems to be uniquely stretched to the extreme. There’s its famous neck, of course, but also its outrageously long eyelashes, its legs (the longest of any animal), its eyes (the widest of any land mammal), its elongated skull, and especially its purple-black prehensile tongue, which can extend over a foot and a half from its mouth and nimbly strip bare an acacia stem so thorny you wouldn’t want to grab it with your bare hand. Even its heart, which pumps blood over a greater vertical span than any other land mammal, can be more than two feet long, with ventricle walls more than three inches thick.

The giraffe has the highest known blood pressure of any animal, and yet somehow it can manage to quickly drop its head 16 or 17 feet to the ground without passing out. Because it’s so difficult for them to get up and down, and because they’re so vulnerable when they’re on the ground, giraffes only seem to sleep for a few minutes at a time (a phenomenon difficult to observe in the wild). They can go for weeks without water by hydrating only with the moisture they suck from leaves. It took five years of observing giraffes in the deserts of Namibia before the GCF’s Fennessy, perhaps the world’s leading expert on giraffes, ever saw one splay its legs and dip its head awkwardly to drink from a ground puddle. Witnessing this gawky effort to obtain the most basic sustenance makes one wonder if the right question to ask isn’t why the giraffe has such a long neck, but rather, why is it so short relative to such long legs?

In truth we still don’t know why the giraffe has such a long neck. According to Nikos Soulounias, an evolutionary biologist at the New York Institute of Technology, the giraffe evolved on the Indian subcontinent and migrated to Africa from Asia some eight million years ago. Its closest living relative, the okapi, which lives in the equatorial rainforests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, noticeably lacks its cousin’s long neck.

Giraffes are naturally topiarists, eating the acacias into hourglass profiles that fan up at the top, just above the “browse line” where the animals’ towering necks and outstretched tongues can no longer reach, and so it would make sense that the long neck evolved to open up a feeding niche unavailable to shorter species. But some researchers have suggested that the giraffe’s long neck is actually a function of sexual selection. Its principal benefit is not for foraging in the upper reaches of trees but rather for males to more effectively club each other with their pendulous heads, outfitted with extra-thick skulls, when competing for females in heat. Or perhaps the giraffe’s long neck is simply to give an otherwise fairly defenseless animal a high vantage point to watch the horizon for predators.

Undoubtedly linked to the giraffe’s long neck is its eerie silence. Giraffes almost never make a sound and don’t communicate with each other using any kind of signaling audible to human ears. Their silence is especially bizarre given that they’re social creatures that live in a fission-fusion society, in which groups of individuals frequently get together for a period of time before dissolving. Other species with fission-fusion societies, such as elephants and chimpanzees, tend to be loquacious communicators. This has led some researchers to suggest that giraffes may emit low-frequency infrasound to communicate with each other over long distances (similar to the low-frequency rumblings of elephants), but so far the evidence has been mixed.

After two minutes of standing still, the giraffe that Morkel has darted appears to realize how weird she’s starting to feel. Suddenly she gallops off from the group, her long legs seeming to fly in slow motion.

Our truck sets off after her, weaving through the tiger brush at 20 miles an hour, as the driver tries to keep up with the sprinting animal. Finally we’re able to shoot out in front of the giraffe to cut her off. The tires screech to a halt so that four men in the bed can leap out and set up a rope line to slow the animal. As the giraffe barrels straight into the line, the head local researcher, Abdoul Razack Moussa Zaberiou, is sent flying through the air while the giraffe tumbles to the ground in a cloud of dust.

Morkel jumps on top of the downed giraffe just below her head and plunges a syringe full of antidote into a jugular vein, while two rangers straddle the lower part of her neck to keep her pinned. They only have about two minutes until the animal comes to her senses, and so the team hustles to stuff her ears with a rag and put a blindfold over her eyes.

While Morkel lets fly a string of expletives, the team of vets and rangers take blood samples and inject syringefuls of vitamin E, antibiotics, and an anti-inflammatory drug. They take the giraffe’s temperature and measurements and cut off an ear tip for later DNA testing.

No sooner have they wrapped a rope around her torso than the animal awakens and kicks wildly, spraying peach-colored sand into the air. Morkel delivers a slap on her rear end and she shoots up, blind and deaf, to be guided by a rope into the back of a trailer, in which she’ll be driven to a large enclosure made of eucalyptus poles and thatching.

Five more giraffes are standing by, intently observing from their perch high above us, not 30 yards away. Two of them chew their cud, rolling a bolus between their teeth. Farther in the distance a pair of young Zarma herders, with their flock of goats, lean against a tree, watching as well. The whole frenzied chase has the feeling of a mobster hit gone awry, or perhaps an alien abduction.

After three weeks getting accustomed to life in an enclosure, the giraffes that will recolonize Gadabedji are ready for transport. At about 11 a.m. on a Sunday, the first four giraffes are guided into a 20-foot shipping container that has been painted white and had its roof cut off. The floor is packed with wet sand for the animals to stand on and has poles fastened all along the edges to hang leaves as an in-transit snack. It’s crucial that the giraffes stay calm during the trip. Weeks earlier the team lost an overexcited animal that slipped and knocked its head against the trailer and later died.

Led by a spotter vehicle that looks out for electrical wires that could decapitate the precious cargo, the truck sets off at a 10-mile-an-hour crawl for Gadabedji, some 500 miles away.

Four curious giraffe heads poking above the trailer watch a parade of sights they’ve never encountered before: men getting haircuts by the side of the road, butchered goats hanging from poles, and small white mosques overflowing with prostrate men. We drive past a camel-driving Tuareg herder, a cattle market filled with mangy long-horned bulls, women in hijabs who smile and point, and quite a few people who don’t even look up to notice the strangest cargo ever to blow through their village.

Forty-seven hours later, having stopped only for twice-a-day feeds beneath gao trees and a three-hour nap for the crew, we finally arrive at Gadabedji, where we’re greeted by the Tuareg mayor in a bright red robe and turban. It’s a sandy landscape, with little grass or brush. Children run out to meet our caravan, raising their arms and jumping for joy. They have heard for months that we are coming.

“This is perfect country for a giraffe,” Morkel tells me, smiling. The heads peeking over the side of the shipping container look around at the clear expanse and pockets of edible acacias. Yes, this is indeed good giraffe country.

As Tuareg guards stand by with AK-47s, the gates of the shipping container are opened. Under a blazing sun, a daytime moon, and a sky of wispy cirrus clouds, the giraffes have arrived at their new home. This is just the first cohort of the founding population. There are plans for more animals to join them next year. And the year after, possibly more.

After two minutes the first giraffe pokes her head forward and cautiously trots out. She is soon followed by the others. They stop to watch the humans watching them. A breeze blows by, and the four turn and wander off slowly, marching toward a stand of acacias at the horizon. They move single file, looking back now and again as if unsure what they’re supposed to do next, until they are out of sight.

Author Joshua Foer wrote about Hawaii’s lava tubes in the June 2017 issue. Ami Vitale photographed orphaned elephants and their Kenyan protectors for the August 2017 issue.

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