27/06/2017 11:27 AM AEST | Updated 24/09/2018 11:24 PM AEST

Giraffes Face Extinction If We Don't Stick Our Necks Out And Protect Them

Numbers of the tallest land animal on the planet are plummeting.

All photos by Bee-Elle.

A long, patterned neck reaches into the prickly foliage of an umbrella acacia tree. Regally crowned with furry ossicones, her long eyelashes bat in the sun as she gracefully walks to a branch and tears the leaves and buds from their thorny stems.

She's not only the tallest land animal on Earth, she's also fast, and can run at speeds of up to 60kmph --critical when running away from her main predators, the lion and the hyena. She's perhaps not fast enough, however, to run from the serious possibility that her species will become extinct in the next few generations if her population continues to plummet at the current rate.

With less than 100,000 left in the wild, this iconic species now exists in a state as vulnerable as the African elephant, whose population is approximately 415,000.

Giraffes are currently heading towards extinction, with populations falling by nearly 40 percent over the past 30 years, from approximately 160,000 in 1985 to about 97,500 in 2015, due to widespread habitat loss and poaching for bushmeat.

Their place in the 'charismatic megafauna' group has ensured they've received a lot of attention from society, however their omnipresence, ironically perhaps, has distracted the world from examining the state of their real existence in the wild.

Last year, based on the latest research findings, the IUCN escalated the giraffe's classification from 'least concern' to 'vulnerable to extinction'.
Widespread habitat loss, poaching for bushmeat and trophy hunting are affecting their survival.

Last year, the IUCN Red List classification for the giraffe changed from 'least concern', skipped 'near threatened' status and moved to 'vulnerable'. Currently, only 1 species of giraffe is recognised, along with 9 subspecies. However, mounting evidence has shown that there are in fact 4 different species of giraffe: the southern, the Maasai, the reticulated and the northern variants.

Data reveals that they're genetically disparate and none of these species can interbreed in the wild. If IUCN classifies them as such, 3 out of 4 of these species would be given a graver conservation status.

Four different species of giraffe are now thought to exist: the southern, the Maasai, the reticulated and the northern giraffe. If this species variation is recognised, 3 out of 4 giraffe would be rendered endangered or critically endangered.

Their struggle to survive is exacerbated by other threats: in various countries, giraffe are shot for sport in trophy hunting. In Central Africa, giraffe are poached for their tails for cultural practices, their skin and hair for jewellery; and for traditional medicine, based on beliefs that consuming giraffe brain can cure certain diseases.

Further threats to the giraffe include trophy hunting and poaching for their tails, skin and hair for cultural practices, jewellery and traditional medicine.

They are but one of many species that are undergoing a decline, and a very stark reminder that the world is undergoing a global extinction crisis: the worst the world has seen in about 65 million years. According to WWF's Living Planet Index, within about 40 years, the total population of vertebrate species has more than halved.

In the meantime, these imperiled creatures continue to move elegantly and silently through Africa, amidst all that threatens their existence. Their heads held high, they are now, more than ever, truly a limited edition.

The forgotten ones: a silent extinction.