Giraffe populations have increased in countries where sustainable use hunting is possible
The giraffe is among the most recognizable and iconic wildlife species of African savanna and woodland communities. Due to a combination of factors—primarily loss of habitat due to human expansion and resource extraction, civil unrest in many of the range countries, poaching, and ecological change—giraffe numbers have decreased in recent decades in some parts of Africa. Data from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN, an international scientific consortium that tracks rare species worldwide) suggest legal trade in giraffe is not a threat to giraffes and, indeed, notes that population sizes in countries where giraffe hunting is legal are generally increasing. Despite this, anti-sustainable use groups have called for greater restrictions or outright bans on legal hunting of giraffe.
The world’s tallest land mammal, these majestic ungulates are widespread and locally abundant across southern and portions of eastern Africa. However, continent-wide giraffe populations have declined by approximately 40% over the last 30 years or so, and populations in central and west Africa are generally small and isolated (<2,500 individuals total). Accordingly, the IUCN listed giraffe as “Vulnerable” in 2016 and initiated a range-wide survey to get improved population estimates through its Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group.
A limited amount of legal, regulated hunting of giraffes occurs in certain range states, with approximately 300 giraffes per year (<0.4% of the estimated population) imported into the United States from three countries: Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Giraffes are very charismatic and popular, and there have several well-publicized social media attack campaigns against giraffe hunters in recent years. Most recently, several west African nations and Kenya have proposed that giraffe be listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). While listing does not prevent legal hunting or importation of trophies, it increases the monitoring burden for range states and results in more stringent controls on exportation.
Listing under CITES is intended to be a regulatory mechanism applied to species for which legal trade represents a significant threat. All available data suggest this is not the case for giraffes; in fact, capacity building related to legal hunting (e.g., anti-poaching efforts) has likely contributed to population growth in range states where it occurs. The IUCN lists nine giraffe subspecies, of which four are increasing, four are decreasing, and one is stable. Interestingly, the two subspecies that inhabit countries with well-developed legal hunting (including giraffe hunting)—the Angolan giraffe and the South African giraffe—have each more than doubled in population size (from a combined population of 23,000 to over 50,000) since the 1970s and 1980s. In contrast, recent dramatic declines have occurred in the Nubian (from over 20,000 around 1980 to less than 1,000 in 2015), Masai (from over 65,000 to 30,000) and reticulated (from approximately 40,000 in 1990 to 8,600 in 2016) giraffe subspecies that inhabit east African countries (Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia) where legal hunting is not permitted.
This is yet another example of the conservation benefits that accrue from well-managed, regulated hunting. By giving local communities and governments incentives to maintain healthy wildlife populations, many species can benefit (including giraffes). SCI Foundation staff will attend the CITES Conference of the Parties in Sri Lanka in May and work with our friends in Africa to preserve the sustainable use model of conservation that works so effectively in Africa and elsewhere.