By Maneka Gandhi
In 1990 I went to the dreadful Kolkata Zoo. They had imported a young female giraffe from Africa – a practice we need to ban. She was utterly beautiful with her shy long lashed eyes and graceful ballet legs. I named her Teesta – after the mysterious and spectacular river. The Kolkata Zoo officials, and the Minister, promised that they were going to relocate the zoo to a large area where the animals would roam free. Forty years and at least 4,000 deaths later, I am still waiting. Teesta is dead. The Kolkata Zoo decided to relocate the giraffes to Odisha’s Nandankanan Zoo. They loaded them into an open truck and, while they were swerving, the animals hit their heads on an electric pole and died.
While the world concentrates on lions, gorillas and elephants being decimated, the giraffe is almost extinct. In the last 15 years, the population of giraffes has fallen by 40%. Now there are less than 80,000 left and they reduce every day. Soon, they will only be seen in zoos and then it’s over.
The main culprits in this case are the Americans. Conservation groups, like Center for Biological Diversity, Humane Society International, Humane Society of the United States, International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Natural Resources Defense Council, have been petitioning the government for the last two years to protect giraffes under the Endangered Species Act. No action has been taken.
What difference will it make to giraffes in Africa if America passes the Act? Because giraffes are losing their lives to tribal hunting and to souvenir hunters in America, who kill through Fedex – one giraffe is killed for a carving to be made on its bone. On average, the US imports about one giraffe hunting trophy a day, and the country has imported 21,402 bone carvings, 3,008 skin pieces and 3,744 miscellaneous hunting trophies from giraffes over the last few years. Giraffe bones are now the new ivory and the USA is heavily implicated in the trade with its large market for giraffe parts. Once China gets into it as well – then giraffes will be gone in six months.
Africa now has fewer giraffes than elephants. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature elevated the threat level to giraffes from “least concern” to “vulnerable” on its “Red List of Threatened Species” in 2016.
Giraffes are the tallest mammals on Earth. Their legs alone are taller than many humans. They can run at 35 miles an hour – but who can run fast enough to dodge a hunter’s bullet?
They are found in the dry savannas of Africa, where they roam on the open plains and sparse woodlands. They eat acacia leaves from the trees – their necks are far too short to reach the ground, but long enough to reach the tree tops. Their long blue tongues help them pull down 45 kg of leaves and twigs daily. Their height, and eyesight, makes it easy for them to spot predators, like lions and hyenas, from far away. Their kicks are strong and sometimes lethal. They bellow, snort, hiss and make flute like sounds.
Giraffes are social animals and roam around in groups of females and calves led by an adult male. Giraffes can live till 40. The age can be found in the skin spots. The darker the spots, the older the giraffe.
Female giraffes give birth standing up. Newborns fall 6 feet to the ground but within 30 minutes they are standing, and hours later they’re able to run with their mothers.
The gestation period for a giraffe is 457 days, which is about 15 months. Generally, only a single baby is born. A female giraffe averages around five calves in her lifetime About 50 per cent of all giraffe calves do not survive their first year. This percentage of infant mortality goes up, depending on the number of lions in the area. Recent studies show the death of 82% of young calves in lion rich areas.
Giraffes used to be distributed throughout North and West Africa, including the Sahara, and along the Nile. Today, giraffes are only found in sub-Saharan Africa. From herds of 20-30 animals in the 90s, their average herd now contains fewer than six individuals.
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) the creatures are undergoing a “silent extinction”. A mass extinction of giraffes will disrupt ecosystems in Africa, with the lions next.
In the war torn areas of northern Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and South Sudan the giraffe is seen as a large animal whose meat can feed a large number of people – and all it costs is a single bullet. The giraffe is dispersed over 21 countries, in state-owned national parks, private and communal lands. Out of nine subspecies fewer than 300 “West African giraffes” survive in Niger and less than 700 “Rothschild’s giraffes” are dispersed between Uganda and Kenya, according to a report by wildlife experts at Elephants Without Borders. Kenya is down from 30,000 mammals in the 1990s to 5,500 today.
The statistics of their survival now go from the species increasing in southern Africa over the last three decades, to decreasing by 95% in East Africa. The success in keeping giraffe numbers high in Southern Africa has much to do with the management of the wildlife areas.
In Tanzania, the belief is that consuming giraffe brains and bone marrow could be a cure for HIV – “freshly severed heads and giraffe bones can fetch prices of up to $140 per piece”.
Giraffe is a part of bush meat in a number of rural African communities. Their skin is used for clothing, shoes, bags, belts, hats and covers for drums. Their hair makes jewellery, thread for sewing or stringing beads. Their tails are used to swish flies away and were originally symbols of authority.
Many African governments have restrictions on hunting, bans on hunting in National Parks, introduction of licence systems, but people continue to hunt wildlife illegally. And American tourists pay local poachers to do the hunting and send them the parts through couriers, like the Minnesota dentist who had Cecil, the iconic and protected lion in Zimbabwe, killed in 2015 and the head shipped to him. The US is the largest importer of trophies in the world.
As human populations grow, and increase agricultural activities expand settlements, and construct roads, the giraffe is losing its acacia trees, which are its main source of food. They face the risk of collisions with vehicles and power lines. But the species is mainly threatened by “trophy” hunters who travel to Africa to shoot their big-game quarry. These hunters overwhelmingly come from the US. In August, pictures emerged of a 12-year-old girl from Utah posing with her rifle beside the slumped body of a dead giraffe. “In the past few years, several gruesome images of trophy hunters next to slain giraffe bodies have caused outrage, bringing this senseless killing to light,” said Masha Kalinina, international trade policy specialist with Humane Society International.
Giraffes are one of the most iconic animals in the world, but the clock is now ticking for their survival.
America’s government must realise the importance of banning giraffe trophies. An endangered species listing would place heavy restrictions on any American hunter wishing to travel to Africa and bring back a slaughtered giraffe.
ABCD books for children have all got G for giraffe. How will we explain to a child in ten years time what a giraffe was?
(To join the animal welfare movement contact firstname.lastname@example.org, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)