Giraffes are facing a ‘silent extinction’ with just 90,000 animals still roaming the African plains, far fewer than the endangered African Elephant, a new documentary warns.
Just 15 years ago there were thought to be around 150,000 giraffes in the wild but since then numbers have slumped by 40 per cent because of habitat loss and poaching.
A new BBC documentary, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, followed a conservation team as they relocated a group of 20 animals across the Nile in Uganda where it is hoped they will be safe from oil prospectors.
“These gentle giants have been overlooked,” said Sir David. “It’s well known that African elephants are in trouble and there are perhaps just under half a million left.
“But what no one realised is there are far fewer giraffes. Giraffes have already become extinct in seven countries. They are killed for their meat and their habitats are being destroyed. Time is running out.”
Despite the fact that populations number around one fifth of African Elephants, the giraffe conservation status is still graded as of ‘Least Concern.’
Giraffe expert Dr Julian Fennessy, Executive director of Giraffe Conservation Foundation, launched the daring rescue mission to relocate a population of Ugandan giraffes after learning just how few animals were left.
“I am absolutely amazed that no one has a clue,” said Dr Fennessey. “This silent extinction. Some populations less than 400 populations. That is more endangered than any gorilla, or almost any large mammal in the world.
“Everyone thinks they are everywhere. But numbers are plummeting. It would be a really sad world without giraffes.
“Giraffe have gone extinct in seven countries in Africa. It’s not going to happen again. There is no giraffe going to go extinct on my watch.”
One of the most endangered populations is a group of less than 1,000 Rothschild’s giraffes which live in Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda.
All the animals live on one side of The River Nile, but the ground beneath them contains over 75 per cent of Uganda’s discovered oil, and drilling plans are underway.
Dr Fennessey has been working with the Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA) to capture 20 of the giraffes and take them across the Nile to establish a new population.
Tom Okello, Murchison Falls Park Manager, said: “You should not keep all your eggs in one basket.
“We keep some stock outside of the oil area so in the event that some impacts may come out of the oil we have a separate population somewhere else.”
However catching wild giraffes is tricky because their huge size means they cannot simply be tranquilised, as they might fall down and suffer fatal injuries.
Once they are shot with a dose of tranquiliser they have to be chased on foot and pulled safely to the ground using ropes. And the teams only have a 20 minute window to administer the antidote or the animal will die.
It’s dangerous work, as the giraffes weigh over a tonne and can decapitate a man with a single kick. They must be blindfolded and led into a special trailer so they can be taken across the Nile by ferry.
The climax of the documentary sees the animals released on the other side of The Nile and into a new life in the bush.
Dr Fennessey added: “The time is now. If we don’t come together to save giraffe it could be too late.”
After their release the team followed the movements of the animals using specially designed satellite collars which fit around their ossicones – the horn like structures on the tops of their heads.
The collars showed the new population ranging hundreds of miles exploring their new home, across the river. Some giraffes are known to cover vast distances of seven thousand square miles.
The new documentary has also captured astonishing animal behaviour which has never been seen in the wild. Using night vision cameras they recorded giraffes sleeping with their heads curled up on their backs, like swans, while taking it in turns to keep watch for lions.
And genetic samples taken from all the populations appear to show that giraffes actually belong to five separate species. The research is currently being peer reviewed and is expected to be published shortly.
Giraffes: Africa’s Gentle Giants airs at 8pm on BBC2 on June 23.