Giraffe numbers have plummeted from 140,000 in the late 1990s to less than 80,000 today. In the past 30 years, giraffe have become extinct in at least 7 African countries and okapi numbers are thought to have halved. This dramatic loss has gone largely unnoticed.
The main threats to both species are habitat loss and, increasingly, illegal hunting/poaching.
The giraffe, as a species, as well as all its 9 subspecies, are expected to end up in one of the IUCN Red List threatened categories. The okapi was recently listed as ‘Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List.
Dr Noëlle Kümpel, okapi expert and co-chair for okapi of the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group, comments, “The giraffe is loved and known across the world, but very few people are aware that we are losing both this iconic species and its only close living relative, the okapi, at an unprecedented and alarming rate.”
Dr Julian Fennessy, Executive Director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) and co-chair for giraffe of the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group, adds, “The giraffe is an African icon and the drop in numbers surprises even the most seasoned conservationists, as giraffe appear to be everywhere. The research that has been done so far is only starting to paint the bleak picture facing these gentle giants. It is time for the international community to stick their necks out to save giraffe before it is too late.”
Despite being one of the most iconic and recognizable animals in the world, giraffe are probably the least researched large mammals in Africa. New information on the ecology, population and distribution of giraffe and okapi is shedding light on poorly-understood behaviors such as the function of all-male giraffe herds and the leadership role taken by older females in the group. But we still know very little about these animals.
Giraffe and okapi are the only living species in the Giraffidae family and share a number of common features, such as elongated necks and long, dark-coloured tongues (both adaptations for feeding on tree leaves).
The giraffe is found in savannah regions of 21 countries across sub-Saharan Africa while okapi are restricted to the dense, lowland rainforests of central and north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).