A bold plan to save Africa’s shrinking giraffe herds

Of all the large African mammals that wildlife veterinarian Pete Morkel has had to capture over his career—lions, forest elephants, white rhinos—giraffes are the most stressful. “With other animals, you’re trying to give just enough anesthetic to immobilize them, but with a giraffe, we use a total overdose to chemically knock them off their feet,” the sun-leathered 59-year-old tells me as I stalk him stalking a two-year-old female giraffe somewhere in the Nigerien bush, about 60 miles east of Niamey, Niger’s capital. He is wearing a camo hat and a pair of torn, purple-checkered boxers that he’s been wearing as shorts for the past several days.

Morkel has loaded his dart gun with a dose of etorphine, an opioid about 6,000 times more powerful than morphine. Once it penetrates the giraffe’s skin, he and his team will have just minutes to chase down the animal, tackle her, and inject her neck with an antidote to keep her from dying. If she can be successfully captured and survive a 500-mile translocation across Niger, she’ll become one of eight founding “Adams” and “Eves” of a new population of one of the world’s rarest wild mammals.

The giraffes we have chased for a week are the descendants of some 50 animals that made their way to the West African country of Niger in the late 1980s, when drought and war pushed them from their habitat in neighboring Mali. They walked south-southeast across the Sahel, along the Niger River, and skirted Niamey before settling in the Koure region, on a dry and dusty plateau.

A Fulani herder named Amadou Hama, 76, recalled what it was like decades ago when he first encountered one of these giraffes one evening while tending his cattle. “We thought it was the devil, because of that neck and those horns. People had told me about dangerous animals like lions, but nobody had ever told me about the giraffe. We were frightened. Even the cows were frightened.”

These newly arrived giants were the last survivors of a once vast population of “white giraffes” whose range at the turn of the last century spanned all of West Africa, from the coast of Senegal to Nigeria.

In 2016 a team of scientists came to an epiphany (if still contentious) about giraffes. Until then, the conventional view held that all giraffes belonged to a single species, Giraffa camelopardalis. But genetic analysis now suggests that giraffes are in fact four distinct species, actually more different from each other than the brown bear is from the polar bear. And those four species can be further classified into five subspecies, including the rare West African Giraffa camelopardalis peralta, the pale, spotted refugees now found only in the Koure region of Niger. Based on this new taxonomy, all but two subspecies would be considered vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered, and across Africa, populations have declined by almost 40 percent over the past three decades, leaving an estimated 110,000 giraffes in the world.

Julian Fennessy, co-director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF), calls this the “silent extinction,” because unlike the attention lavished on the disappearance of elephants and great apes, most people assume that giraffes are doing just fine in the wild, perhaps because of their abundance in zoos and as stuffed animals.

And in fact, in some parts of Africa giraffes are doing fine. In South Africa and Namibia, where private game farms boost wildlife numbers and giraffes are hunted legally, populations have nearly doubled in recent decades. But in East Africa, the reticulated and Masai species of giraffe face a much grimmer outlook. “What’s killing giraffes in southern Kenya is fences. They’re an even bigger threat than poaching. Giraffes can’t jump over fences, which means their ranges are being fragmented,” says Arthur Muneza, the East Africa coordinator of the GCF. Population growth, livestock overgrazing, and climate change are pushing pastoralists and farmers into wildlands and giraffe habitat. Meanwhile the population of Nubian giraffes, found mostly in Uganda, has declined by as much as 97 percent over the past 30 years, making them one of the world’s most critically endangered large mammals.

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