For decades, Lesaiton Lengoloni had few questions when his path crossed that of the largest land animal. “With a giraffe, you could feed the village for more than a week,” recalls the Samburu shepherd living on the Laikipia plateau in central Kenya.
“There was no particular pride in killing a giraffe, not a lion,” said the man with the face crushed by time, leaning on a stick.
And no matter if the hunt for this charismatic animal is considered poaching, “it was a means of sustenance, we ate the meat, we used the skin for the leather and made remedies, and the tails were symbolically offered to seniors, “he explains.
But over the years, he says, reticulated giraffes, the subspecies living in this region, have become increasingly rare.
In a context of population growth, their habitat has been increasingly fragmented and reduced, while some continue to kill giraffes only for their bones and brains, considered as cures for AIDS, or their tails.
At the continental level, the number of giraffes decreased by some 40% between 1985 and 2015, reaching about 98,000 individuals, according to figures compiled by the International Union for the Protection of Nature (IUCN), which however identifies distinct regional dynamics.
In Somalia, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic, among other things, conflicts encourage poaching and make it virtually impossible to study and protect giraffes.
Notable increases have been recorded in southern Africa, but in eastern Africa the reticulated giraffe has lost about 60% of its individuals while the Nubian giraffe has experienced a tragic decline of 97%. In Central Africa, the Kordofan giraffe has seen its population decrease by 85%.
– Surprise –
IUCN's announcement of the giraffe ranking as “vulnerable” was welcomed with a relative surprise at the end of 2016. In the previous evaluation, in 2010, it was still classified as “minor concern”.
“The giraffe is a big animal that we see quite easily in parks and reserves, which could give the false impression that everything was fine,” says Julian Fennessy, co-chair of the IUCN Specialist Group for giraffes and okapis. “Especially since the problem lies mainly outside the protected areas”.
Many observers point to the threat of “silent extinction” for these reasons, especially since historically the giraffe has rarely attracted much interest from researchers.
“If we compare them to other charismatic species such as lions, elephants and rhinos, we know very little about giraffes,” says Symon Masiaine, coordinator of the program of study and protection of giraffes “Twiga Walinzi” ( Guardians of giraffes in Swahili), Kenya, started in 2016. “We are late, but things are changing”.
Arthur Muneza of the Giraffe Preservation Foundation recalls that the first long-term giraffe research was only done in Namibia in 2004, and that a number of giraffe data have been collected as part of on other animals.
It also notes that IUCN, in the absence of reliable data, had to wait until 2018 to be able to establish the threat level for some subspecies. The reticulate and the Maasai are now classified as “endangered”, the Nubian and Kordofan “critically endangered”.
“Without reliable data, it's difficult to establish adequate safeguards,” he says.
– Trophies –
The latest proposal is aimed at regulating international trade in giraffes under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which meets from 17 to 28 August in Geneva. But here too, a cruel lack of data takes center stage.
Six African countries, including Chad and Kenya, are proposing to classify giraffe as “a list of species that, although not necessarily threatened with extinction, could become extinct if trade in their specimens is not tightly controlled “. “Export or re-export permits” would therefore be mandatory.
Except there is “not enough reliable data” on the international trade in giraffes, whether trophies, body parts or artifacts, says Arthur Muneza. “It should first be a study to know the extent of the phenomenon and its possible influence on the populations of giraffes”.
Proponents of the proposal invoked the precautionary principle and stressed that a classification would force member countries to collect export data.
Critics denounce a proposal guided by “emotion” rather than “scientific facts,” and point out that the limited information available – the United States is the only country listing these imports – indicate that most of the trophies giraffes come from countries where giraffe populations are increasing (South Africa and Namibia).
On the set of Laikipia, Symon Masiaine believes that whatever the decision taken in Geneva, “it means that we speak about the giraffe, and it needs that”.