November 9, 2009

Startling Revival Of Africa’s Giraffes

A century ago, West Africa's giraffes numbered in the thousands, with their habitat spanning from Chad to Senegal's Atlantic Ocean coast.   By the earliest 21st century, their habitat had shrunk to a small area barely 150 miles long.  By 1996, the number of giraffes had dwindled down to just 50.

However, instead of disappearing, as many had feared, the giraffes have miraculously sprung back from the brink of extinction, swelling in number to more than 200 today, according to an Associated Press report.

Experts say the unlikely turnaround is the result of conservationists' work, a government eager for revenue, and a rare harmony with villagers who for now have accepted the presence of the giraffes.

There are now nine subspecies of giraffes in Africa, each differentiated according to their geographic location and the color, shape and pattern of their spotted coats.

Giraffes in Niger are known as Giraffa camelopardalis peralta, with their large orange-brown spots and pale white legs.  They are the most endangered subspecies in Africa.

A decade ago, some 140,000 giraffes inhabited Africa, according to Nairobi-based conservation expert Julian Fennessy.

Today, poaching, war, growing human populations and dwindling habitat has shrunk the number of giraffes to less than 100,000.   About half the giraffes now live outside game parks in the wild, where they are more difficult to track and protect, Fennessy told the Associated Press.

The plight of giraffes has largely been overlooked among conservationists, she said.

"We're trying to increase awareness, educate people, help governments put conservation practices in place."

Fennessy founded the Giraffe Conservation Foundation to increase awareness attention to the animals' troubles.

"If we don't, giraffe numbers are going to continue to drop."

The first time the trucks came for giraffes in Koure was more than ten years ago, during the reign of army colonel Ibrahim Bare Mainassara, who seized power in a 1996 coup.

Col. Mainassara insisted the animals would make a good gift for the president of neighboring Burkina Faso, and ordered many captured, said Omer Kodjo Dovi of the Niamey-based Association to Safeguard the Giraffes of Niger.

However, "the giraffes went into a panic," Dovi told the AP.

"They couldn't outrun the trucks."

Giraffes, which can weigh up to 2,200 pounds and can run at speeds up to 35 miles per hour, have difficulty getting up and typically die if they fall.

Five giraffes were captured, Dovi said.  Three died on the spot, while the other two were shipped to Burkina Faso. No one knows for sure if the animals ever arrived.

Under pressure from conservationists in 1998, Niger's government began realized that the herds were on the verge of disappearing.

Authorities enacted new laws prohibiting hunting and poaching, and killing a giraffe became punishable by five years in prison and fines of hundreds of times the yearly income of farmers.

The changes were dramatically effective, with the herds nearly doubling in size by 2004.

The government "realized they had an invaluable biological and tourism resource: the last population left in West Africa," said French scientist Jean-Patrick Suraud of the Association to Safeguard the Giraffes of Niger.

In 2004, though, the trucks returned at the behest of President Mamadou Tandja, who ordered a pair captured for the dictator of nearby Togo.

Four vehicles carrying Togolese soldiers, government forestry rangers and three local guides charged down the two-lane highway toward the giraffe zone, according to reports by the independent local newspaper Le Republicain, which also published photographs of the incident.

"They did it like cowboys," Suraud told the AP.

"These are big animals, fragile. They can easily die of stress."

The giraffes were bound, blindfolded, drugged and hauled onto the back of open-back trucks for the trip to Togo, where they died en route.

In Africa, giraffe skin is used for everything from drums to watertight bowls and even shoes. Their bones are used as grinders and some even believe they can help bring precipitation.

Zibo Mounkaila, a guide, said some believe the hair on giraffe coats can promote fertility.

But Suraud said villagers living in Koure believe giraffes are mostly useless, since they can't be hunted for food and are not domesticated.

The Association to Safeguard the Giraffes of Niger tries to teach people that it is their best interest to keep the animals around.

"We tell them, 'if you are pro-giraffe, we can support you, give you loans,'" he said.

"But there is a quid pro quo. 'We also want you to stop chopping down their bushes and plant trees.'"

With a staff of ten, and with additional help from private European zoos and the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, the Giraffe Association has constructed wells, planted trees and educated guides that escort visitors through the fenceless region known as "the giraffe zone".

Niger's herds bring in small amounts of tourist revenue for the government, paid through $10 fees distributed partly to the local district.

The Giraffe Association has had a particular focus on loans.

55-year-old Adiza Yamba, a mother of eight and one of the program's beneficiaries, purchased a small lamb for $50.  She was able to sell the animal for twice the price after it grew, paying back her loan and pocketing a large profit from the transaction.

"We don't mind them," Yamba said of the giraffes.

"Sometimes they try to eat the beans or mangos from our fields, but they never bother us," she told the AP.

Niger's giraffe population has grown by 12 percent per year since 1996, a growth rate three times the average on the rest of the continent, Suraud said.

One reason is that the animals face no natural predators. Poachers long ago wiped out the region's lions and leopards, which claim 50 to 70 percent of young giraffes during their first year of life.
The giraffes have also discovered a peaceful region with adequate food supplies and a population that left them alone. Today, they traverse the land in harmony with nomads shepherding camels and sheep.

Attracted to fresh growing vegetation that grows during the continent's rainy season, giraffes are typically seen in herds of 10 or 15.

The animals, which spend much of their time wrapping their 18-inch dark tongues around acacia trees and combretum bush, graze comfortably within view of farmers living in huts.

They are so accustomed to humans that tourists can freely approach them.

"It's quite special in Niger how habituated they've become," Fennessy said.

"You don't normally find giraffes living so close to villagers."

As the herds swell in number, some are concerned about how many the land can support.

The animals have been exploring new areas near the border with Mali, with two crossing into Nigeria in 2007 that never returned.

"When they go away from this zone, it's a big risk, they can be hunted easily," said Suraud.

"The population may be growing, but they're still very threatened."

The biggest threat is habitat loss.

Although technically illegal, villagers relentlessly cut down dead wood to sell, and often cut away vegetation the giraffes feed on to make way for crops.  There is rarely any authority around to stop the practice.

"If we let them, they'll cut trees all the way up to the road," said Environment Ministry official Salifou Mamoudou.

"If there is no habitat, there will be no giraffes," he told the AP.

One morning at dusk, Mounkaila, the guide, observes a family of five giraffes is feeding on patches of vegetation freshened by recent rain.

It is a peaceful scene, and Mounkaila takes a drag off a cigarette and walks casually toward them, dwarfed by the giant animals that are nearly three times his height.

The giraffes can grow up 20 feet tall, and can eat 65 to 85 pounds of food per day, Mounkaila says.  Their average life span is 25 years, and the animals can live for weeks without water, more so than camels.

Mounkaila, 50, points to a red and white cell phone tower rising not far away above the green landscape.

"It wasn't always like this," he says.

"When I was a boy, the giraffes were far more numerous, but they were harder to see."

There used to be enough vegetation to hide them, but the bush and forests are disappearing and that is no longer true, forcing the animals to come out in search of food.

"They're easier to spot," Mounkaila said.

"But that's good for us, not them."

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