The Disappearing Giraffe–They were right there and then . . . they weren’t

The West African giraffe is now rarer than the black rhino and the mountain gorilla—but, thanks to unique partnerships and Operation Sahel Giraffe, help is on the way.

It was 7:00AM and the thermometer on the dash of the old Land Cruiser was already at 37°C—almost 99°F. We had been driving for about 20 minutes when a tap on the roof brought the car to a stop. In the distance, their heads peeping over the dense thorn scrub, were two giraffes. But these weren’t just any giraffes, they were some of the last West African Giraffa camelopardalis peralta—a subspecies of the newly described northern giraffe.

Northern giraffes are some of the most threatened large animals on the planet, numbering few more than 600 individuals. And the West African subspecies is teetering on the brink of extinction, rarer even than the black rhino or the mountain gorilla. The last of these animals, 49 individuals, were here, in the unprotected “Giraffe Zone” an hour’s drive north of Niamey, the bustling capital of Niger, and in the midst of sorghum and legume fields and cattle instead of in a national park. All the eggs were in one flimsy basket—a dangerous place for any species.

This highly threatened taxon once numbered in the tens of thousands, but a large meat-bearing animal spread across a region of civil unrest, hungry communities and no wildlife ownership soon becomes protein for the table. Our mission was to provide a measure of safety for the West African giraffe by establishing a satellite population. We would re-introduce these animals into the Gadabedji Nature Reserve some 700 kilometres (435 miles) north of the precarious Giraffe Zone. This would be the first translocation of any species of wildlife in Niger; and the giraffe has been gone from the Gadabedji for 48 years.

This is GCF

The Giraffe Conservation Foundation, GCF, is one of the best conservation teams you could ever hope to find. In this fast-paced world where many “conservation” non-profits talk the talk with no knowledge of how to walk the walk and raise money that produces little impact on the front lines, GCF stands out. It was founded in the late 2000s by technical expert Dr. Julian Fennessy and project manager Stephanie Fennessy; their small, highly effective and diverse team is based in Namibia and has satellite offices across the continent. GCF supports conservation efforts on 50-plus million acres—20 million hectares—of giraffe habitat in 16 countries. In this case, the government of Niger asked for GCF’s help.

Two things in particular set GCF apart from most other wildlife NGOs: Every single GCF decision is informed by solid science; and its strong focus on partnerships and “non-territorial,” all-inclusive approach make GCF exceptionally effective with governments, NGOs and communities alike.

Giraffes are in trouble?

Yes. Giraffes are one of the most taken-for-granted of Africa’s large animals and the subject of only limited conservation research, much of it by GCF and its partners. Your average safari-goers like to see giraffes, but not as much as they like to see elephants, lions or rhinos and this has allowed a continent-wide decline of 30% in the past three decades (and likely 90% in the past three centuries). We call it a “silent extinction.” The giraffe’s decline is happening before our eyes, with them disappearing entirely from no fewer than seven African countries and dwindling significantly in some others. It has been an astonishing and unexpected loss, one that surprises me to this day. They were right there and then . . . they weren’t.

So back to the Giraffe Zone in Niger: The two pale heads gazed nonchalantly over the tops of the bush. Cowbells clanging in the distance reminded me that these giraffes were not in a protected area like so many of their cousins across the continent. Our Aven guides, directly supported by GCF, started to flick through a booklet of giraffe images. Every one of these animals has been individually photographed and identified; the guides know them all. It was collectively agreed these two were not suitable for translocation—one was an older female and the other had a small calf, hidden from us by the trees.

As we began to drive away, there was another gentle tap on the roof as three more heads appeared from behind another tree. I could tell by the excited whispers behind me that one of these giraffes was a suitable candidate for translocation. Julian Hennessy leaned down from his perch on the back of the vehicle and murmured, “Just edge a bit closer, Ivan. We think the one at the back is perfect—it’s a youngish female.”

Wildlife vet Dr. Pete Morkel fires a dart at the young female giraffe. Sean Viljoen photo

Dr. Pete Morkel, wildlife vet extraordinaire, began to prepare the tranquilizer dart that would let the team capture the young female. The dart system is exceptionally safe and effective, but its Achilles’ heel is its maximum range of just 45 metres, 50 yards. Pete’s deliberate actions spoke to his decades of experience in handling substances so potent that a single droplet could kill a human. Finally, everything was ready and Pete stepped out of the vehicle, gently closed the door and stalked the rarest giraffe subspecies on the planet . . . This would be another conservation dividend earned by GCF’s attention to science, partnerships and close work with government ministries.

All giraffes are not the same

As rare as the West African giraffe is, the Southern giraffe (G. giraffa) is, relatively speaking, thriving. Southern Africa’s growing private land-ownership model coupled with solid community conservation efforts and public support have resulted in a Southern giraffe population in three countries now numbering more than 60,000 in the wild and increasing.

While most casual safari-goers just see “giraffe,” GCF and its partners have shown that there are four genetically distinct species and a number of subspecies of giraffes. Better understanding which species is which is critical to biodiversity across the continent, and essential when it comes to translocations to repopulate an area or augment an existing population. One cannot simply transplant giraffes wherever one wants; West African giraffe should repopulate the West African habitats, just as Maasai giraffe belong in Maasai giraffe habitats and so on. Biodiversity across the globe has plummeted over the past century; with our best knowledge of science, today we must do the right thing for the long term. In the case of giraffes, we can still save them in these hard-hit areas. If we don’t, soon it will be too late.

Day to day, the West African giraffe lives in and among people, so the stalk was essentially Pete just walking toward them, dart gun in hand. They paid him no more attention than they would have a cattle herder carrying a stick. In wilderness habitats, as soon as giraffes see a human on foot, they take off and we have no hope of getting close. These giraffes, however, were very different and I watched in amazement as Pete steadily got closer and closer. These inquisitive animals knew something was not quite right, but clearly they didn’t sense danger in any form.

Pete lifted the dart gun and took aim at the chosen animal. There was a small crack! and the hiss of the dart flying through the air, followed by a gentle clap as it stuck firmly in the rump of the midsize female. One of the team murmured, “Dart’s in!” The stopwatch started and another team member began taking notes to add to GCF’s continent-wide giraffe database. The giraffe hopped, as if stung by an insect, then simply stood and stared at Pete as he retreated back to the vehicle and climbed in.

“Two minutes!” someone announced from behind me. The giraffe shook its head and began to trot away. Now it was now time to put the Cruiser in 4-wheel drive and slowly follow the giraffe.

The giraffe has been tranquilized and her eyes and ears are covered to minimize distraction. With the Nigerien team are GCF’s Julian Fennessy, left, and the author, center. Sean Viljoen photo

Why this steep decline?

The elephant, or I should I say the giraffe, in the room whenever a conservation conversation takes place is human population growth. This issue is often completely passed over because of the stigma associated with convincing people to have smaller families. According to worldometer.com, some African countries have the fastest-expanding human populations on Earth and much of this growth is happening in communities living on or below the breadline. When a poor, hungry community exists alongside a population of large meat animals, disaster waits in the wings. And that’s what happened to G. camelopardalis peralta. They were poached across West Africa by subsistence farmers for their families and, to a lesser degree, by commercial poachers who sold the crudely prepared meat in cities and towns.

Following our giraffe across that landscape was a challenge. The rough terrain, broken up by crop fields and river gullies, posed challenges to a vehicle that were nothing to the giraffe. As she broke into a run, it took all my focus to avoid the obstacles, keep her in sight and listen to Julian’s instructions from the back and Pete’s from the seat beside me. The members of our roping team, trained Niger Wildlife Authority staff, were readying themselves to jump off the vehicle and safely bring the giraffe to the ground so Pete could administer the antidote to the tranquilizer.

“She’s stargazing!” shouted Julian. The drug was almost at full effect, so her head had turned upward and she’d begun slowing down and “high-stepping.”

“Get in front of her, get in front of her,” urged Pete. I did, and jammed on the brakes. The roping team bailed out of the back of the truck, surrounded the dazed animal and, almost before we knew it, had her safely roped and down. Pete injected her and then the team stabilized her for loading. A relief—no one, animal or human, damaged.

Success. Safely in the chariot, the giraffe is still blindfolded for the drive to the boma, the holding pen. Sean Viljoen photo

CITES: helping or hurting?

Another “giraffe in the room,” something that many people don’t know or choose to ignore, is that there is a small legal international trade in giraffe parts based on hunting—and it is not the cause of the decline in wild giraffes. Export permits for giraffe parts (chiefly skulls and skins) are granted to hunters in only three African countries: Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe—regions where giraffe numbers are increasing markedly.

Today’s successful private and community wildlife ownership model, funded by sustainable uses such as hunting and photo tourism, has led to a proliferation of many animal species in some African countries. Since giraffe parts are legally available, no overpriced black market has sprung up for the giraffe as it has for rhino, pangolin, elephant and other species under attack by poaching rings.

Unfortunately, at the last CITES Convention of the Parties, the influence of the animal-rights activists who distributed plush toys and emotion-driven stories prevailed against the scientific studies presented by IUCN, TRAFFIC and other true conservation groups. Giraffe were up-listed to Appendix II (species that may become threatened with extinction if trade controls are not imposed) as a “precautionary” measure. Really, all animals should be included under Appendix II, but that would defeat the purpose for which CITES was established. [Ed. note—see “The Battle inside CITES” in the January issue.]

While the listing will result in greater scrutiny of the three aforementioned giraffe-hunting countries, it will have no impact on poaching (illegal hunting) or the decline of giraffes in countries such as Niger. Why? Because the decline in giraffes is not an outcome of legal trade. It is because of illegal activities—bushmeat poaching that has been occurring across East, Central and West Africa for decades. CITES does not monitor this, nor do most of those countries.

Moving the giraffe to Appendix II will actually hinder conservation efforts such as moving animals or even their genetic materials between countries for repopulation. Now this will require additional paperwork, which is tedious, expensive and hobbles building the strong scientific foundation that should be used to guide conservation decisions. CITES stands for the “Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species” of Wild Flora and Fauna, so why is the giraffe being up-listed, given that its international trade is not only minimal but also not causing its decline? Politics or social media—who is playing whom?

A drone’s-eye view of the boma. The occupants have shade and space and are carefully monitored. Two compartments allow new animals to be added with minimal stress. Sean Viljoen photo

With her eyes hooded and her ears blocked, our captured animal was led into the chariot, a trailer custom-made for transporting giraffes to the boma, the holding pen. (We had built the chariot from scratch in Niamey before starting the operation.) After guiding the 10-foot-tall animal into the trailer and seeing it driven away, I looked around and realized that an amazing diversity of people were taking part: The Nigeriens who’d gathered to watch were jubilant at the support they and their giraffes were receiving from GCF. The capture team was motoring off with their prize. The veterinarians were relieved that all went smoothly. The scientists were madly recording data on which to base future conservation decisions. And our camera crew was stressing about whether they had captured it all . . .

An appreciative audience lining the road to watch the chariot go by. Sean Viljoen photo

Why me?

The Ivan Carter Wildlife Conservation Alliance is a proud partner in wildlife conservation efforts across Africa. Currently, we limit our support to just four core organizations, including the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, and a few short-term special projects each year. In deciding where to put our long-term support, we look for several simple yet solid criteria:

Measurable impact. We require the effectiveness of each organization we support to be measured. Our philosophy is not simply to hand over a bucket of money; it is to provide technical, physical and financial support to a partner organization—and GCF qualifies in spades.

African solutions. We have to be assured that our partners embrace and develop African solutions for African problems. All solutions must truly make sense and must include community benefits.

More wildlife in healthier ecosystems. All our partners must have visions and solutions that not only work, but also align with ours to create more wildlife and healthier ecosystems.

Deep Sahara sand slowed the caravan as it approached the Gadabedji. Sean Viljoen photo


Cautiously eyeing their new home, the giraffes—eight in all, in two loads—prepare to leave the trailer. After more than a year of preparation, Operation Sahel Giraffe began in late 2018. Sean Viljoen photo

GCF’s no-nonsense approach has directly supported the expansion of wild giraffe habitat by more than 7 million acres (2.8 million hectares) in the past few years. As noted earlier, GCF also supports giraffe conservation efforts on huge tracts of land in 16 African countries. By basing its actions on solid science and facts (even facts nobody likes), GCF has developed exceptional community support. Because its vision truly matches our own, GCF is a perfect partner for us. I have spent much time with GCF in the field and my team produced this 13:22 video of Operation Sahel Giraffe.

Getting that first Niger giraffe released into the boma was a huge step. Soon she was joined by seven more animals. Then, after three weeks of acclimatization, when they had settled nicely, the giraffes’ 48-hour road journey to the northeast began. Every five or six hours, the giraffes (and the team) got a break, stopping to feed and rest their legs. The final stretch of deep Sahara sand prolonged the trip more than expected, but everyone was enthusiastic as the Gadabedji crept closer.

Deep Sahara sand slowed the caravan as it approached the Gadabedji. Sean Viljoen photo

Cautiously eyeing their new home, the giraffes—eight in all, in two loads—prepare to leave the trailer. After more than a year of preparation, Operation Sahel Giraffe began in late 2018. Sean Viljoen photo

As the first animals stepped out into their new habitat, leaving hoofprints where there hadn’t had giraffe for many decades, I knew that this is sort of operation is where the conservation rubber meets the road. Yet it did not start just a month ago. The research and planning took more than a year and included reconnaissance trips throughout the region, hours and days of meetings, logistical struggles, exceptional communication and cooperation between government, local communities and GCF, and finally building the chariots and bomas. Truly a monumental effort—it takes not just a village, but an entire country to conserve a species.

Today, thanks to a team of highly motivated people with a common conservation goal, we can say that the West African giraffe is one healthy step closer to being secure. No longer are all the eggs in one basket. Yes, this was just the first step, but a mighty one and one that we hope will be followed by many more.

Ivan Carter, from Zimbabwe, is a conservationist, professional guide, photographer and founder of ICWCA. 

Banner image: West African giraffes in their new home, the Gadabedji Total Reserve, a 76,000-hectare (188,000 acres) IUCN Category IV habitat/species management area in central Niger. The image is from the video produced by the Ivan Carter Wildlife Conservation Alliance.