A recent study listed the giraffe population across Africa as declining by 36 to 40 percent between 1985 and 2015. Picture: Wong Maye-E/AP
A recent study listed the giraffe population across Africa as declining by 36 to 40 percent between 1985 and 2015. Picture: Wong Maye-E/AP
In South Africa there is private ownership of giraffes with incentives to protect the animals. Picture: Jason Reed/Reuters
In South Africa there is private ownership of giraffes with incentives to protect the animals. Picture: Jason Reed/Reuters
In 2015, there were 97 562 giraffes across Africa with South Africa’s population sitting between 18 645 and 22 094. Picture: Jason Reed/Reuters
In 2015, there were 97 562 giraffes across Africa with South Africa’s population sitting between 18 645 and 22 094. Picture: Jason Reed/Reuters
Johannesburg - It's summer, you’re visiting a local game reserve and one of the first animals you spot is a giraffe. After seeing one or two and cooing over a baby and its mom, you turn your head and don’t stop as you encounter more further on your journey.

Perhaps it’s time to make a fuss over them, to give it just as much attention as leopards or bontebok, which are some of South Africa’s vulnerable mammals.

Earlier this month, the continent's population of giraffes was listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) while the South African Red List, published by the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi), listed South Africa’s population as least concern.

As concerns mount over Africa’s declining giraffe population, South Africa’s giraffes haven’t felt the pinch like the rest of the continent, in fact they are increasing.

The IUCN study listed the giraffe population across Africa as declining by 36 to 40 percent between 1985 and 2015. However, according to Matthew Child, Sanbi Biodiversity Informatics Project co-ordinator, during this same period the South African population increased by an estimated 54 percent.

In 2015, there were 97 562 giraffes across Africa with South Africa’s population sitting between 18 645 and 22 094.

“The main threats to giraffes across Africa are habitat loss from deforestation, agricultural expansion, human settlement expansion and mining.

“With this comes increased poaching. Civil unrest through ethnic violence and rebel militias exacerbates these threats,” Child said.

Child explained most of Africa’s protected areas were unfenced and rangers understaffed and overstretched.

“This means it’s difficult for park managers to combat poaching or habitat loss from illegal activities. These are what we call ‘paper parks’, protected in name but not in reality.

“Conversely, South African protected areas are well managed and mostly fenced, meaning there is not as much encroachment from human activities and well-trained park managers can more effectively respond to poaching.”

Child pointed out another key difference between South Africa and the rest of the continent was there was private ownership of wildlife in the country.

“Private landowners can earn an income from giraffes and other wildlife from eco-tourism and commercial hunting, which also creates job opportunities.

“There is incentive for landowners and communities in South Africa to conserve wildlife whereas local communities in many other areas across Africa receive no benefit from protecting giraffes and other species.”

Private landowners in South Africa have also helped to repopulate giraffes in many areas where they formerly occurred. Child said there was currently an estimated 11 299 to 13 850 of the giraffe population living on private protected areas and game farms across the country.

But Child warned that this did not mean South Africa’s giraffe population were “out of the woods” as our giraffes could face similar dangers in the future.

“Ongoing habitat loss has created small, isolated populations that mostly don’t connect with each other. This can cause inbreeding in small populations, which reduces the genetic diversity of the overall population and thus limits their capacity to adapt to environmental change.”

He added while private landowners helped bolster the national population, they have also introduced giraffes into areas they don’t naturally occur. “Most notably, KwaZulu-Natal, Free State, Eastern Cape and Western Cape provinces. This can cause damage to the native habitat, especially when the population is kept in small, enclosed areas.”

To combat the threat, Child suggested several ways in which South Africa and Africa as a whole can deal with the the issues facing the giraffe population.

“In South Africa, protected area expansion and habitat corridors should also be used to continue to create more space for the species and allow isolated populations to interact.

“Introduction of giraffes into areas they did not naturally occur in should be carefully managed and monitored. Private landowners should be encouraged to form conservancies, for example by removing internal fences and increasing the overall area available to giraffes.

"This will reduce the effects of habitat fragmentation and reduce possible habitat degradation.”

Across the rest of Africa, Sanbi recommended “that successful habitat protection and prevention of habitat encroachment can be achieved through fence erection and border patrols”.

Child also said involving local communities in eco-tourism ventures was key to protecting the continent's giraffe population.

“Overall, the difference in extinction risk between the continental and South African giraffe population demonstrates the success of the South African conservation model where conservation agencies, private landowners and local communities engage positively to protect wildlife with benefits for all.

“While there is room for improvement the contrast shows we are on the right track.”

So the next time you visit your local game reserve, remember to give this long necked, spotted mammal a little extra attention.

@Lanc_02

The Star