The Last Giraffes on Earth

March 15, 2020

The planet’s tallest animal is in far greater danger than people might think.

The giraffe is nearly down. Two men have stretched a thick black rope in front of the animal, to trip her up. The giraffe hits the rope, and the plan seems to be working until she gains a second wind and breaks into a fresh run.

Her body sways backward and forward like a rocking horse being pulled along on a dolly. Six more people grab onto the ends of the rope, and the group runs behind her, holding tight, pitting their meager strength against her weight. It would be no contest, were her veins not coursing with tranquilizer.

She loses her footing and careens forward, her legs splaying out behind her. But her seven-foot-long neck still stretches resolutely skyward. A woman leaps from behind her back, collides with her neck midair, and rugby-tackles it to the ground. People run over, carrying a hood and a drill. The giraffe—an emblem of verticality—is now fully horizontal.

Until recently, giraffes have suffered from surprising scientific neglect. Few researchers have studied them in the wild, so even basic aspects of their lives remain mysterious. Perhaps that’s because giraffes live in what researchers suspect are protean societies lacking the cohesiveness of elephant herds or lion prides.

Whatever the reason, one of the world’s most conspicuous creatures has somehow been overlooked. The same goes for its impending extinction. And without fanfare, many other major animal groups—insects, birds, and amphibians—have also declined precipitously. Quite a few of the public’s favorite wild animals, including lions, cheetahs, and gorillas, are in greater peril than is widely realized.

But, according to a 2018 study, this gap between rose-tinted perceptions and dire reality is greatest for giraffes. Their prevalence in the zeitgeist has masked their disappearance from the planet. In 2010, eight times as many Sophie the Giraffe teething toys were sold in France alone as there are actual remaining giraffes. In 2016, the number of Britons who watched a giraffe kick a lion in Planet Earth II exceeded the giraffe population by more than a hundredfold.

That same year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature reclassified the giraffe as “vulnerable” to extinction. Even this grave assessment might be too optimistic: New genetic evidence suggests that the giraffe may actually be four separate species that have been evolving on their own for 1 million to 2 million years. The iconic animal faces several falls instead of one.

Ferguson and her colleagues are trying to find out how the giraffe became so endangered, and how to save it while they still have time. They’re traveling across the few parts of Africa where giraffes still exist, to affix trackers to several hundred individuals.

The process is exhilarating, but also dangerous—for both humans and giraffes. Julian Fennessy, the foundation’s founder and director, only recently recovered from three broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder, sustained when the neck of a stumbling giraffe fell across his torso. He sometimes has to reassure tourists on safari that he is not a poacher. On occasion, his team has had to free tranquilized giraffes that got stuck in trees, or steer them away from rivers.

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