Known for their 6-foot-long necks, distinctive patterning and long eyelashes, giraffes have always captured the human imagination. These amazing African animals have the highest blood pressure among land mammals, special valves in their heads to make sure they don't pass out after leaning over to drink water, and tongues that can be 20 inches long.
But these tallest of all land mammals are in the midst of a silent extinction. Africa's giraffe population has dropped by almost 40 percent in the past 30 years, dwindling to just more than 97,000 individuals — which may seem like a big number, but not in giraffes' case (just consider their huge range, for instance).
Giraffes face mounting threats from habitat loss and fragmentation: Growing human populations and urban development — and the accompanying increase in agriculture, mines, and other extractive industries — are destroying giraffes' homes and converting their habitat for human use.
Illegal hunting is also a problem for the species. Giraffes are poached for their meat in many regions of Africa — as well as for their pelts, bones, hair and tails — by hunters and trappers wielding snares, guns and other weapons. Giraffe hair is used to make jewelry, and giraffe tails are highly valued by some cultures.
Giraffe populations have also been diminished by civil unrest, military actions and war and violence.
To many people's surprise, the United States is part of the problem. Between 2006 and 2015, the United States imported 21,402 giraffe-bone carvings, 3,008 giraffe-skin pieces and 3,744 giraffe hunting trophies.
These majestic creatures were once found widely across Africa in many different regions and ecosystems. Most scientists agree that there are nine subspecies of giraffes: West African, Nubian, Kordofan, reticulated, Masai, Thornicroft's, Rothschild's, Angolan and South African. These subspecies are each unique, both genetically and physically, often sporting entirely different patterns on their coats, and each use their local habitats in different ways. Thus, conserving all nine subspecies is a priority — especially since some have populations of only 400 to 600 giraffes.
We're on the cusp of understanding so much about giraffes. Recently, for example, scientists revealed that giraffe herds are also most likely led by matriarchs, just like elephants. But many intriguing unanswered questions remain: Why do giraffes hum at night? Why did they develop those lovely long necks?
We want to ensure that these majestic mammals survive — and thrive — in Africa to stir imaginations for generations to come. That's why in 2017 the Center and our partners petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect Africa’s rapidly dwindling giraffe population under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. When the Service missed its deadline to move forward, in 2020 we filed a notice of intent to sue the agency for failing to consider protections.