How To Save The World's Tallest Animal

Conservationists are working to save giraffes from a "silent extinction".

Story and Photographs by Ami Vitale

Though every schoolchild knows the tallest animal in the world, giraffe are often forgotten when it comes to conservation.

During the past 15 years, the African herbivore’s numbers have plummeted from an estimated 140,000 to around 97,000 today—what some scientists call a “silent extinction.” Habitat loss and fragmentation, coupled with poaching, have mostly driven the decline, but because there have been no long-term conservation efforts, it’s hard to know what’s really happening.

Making matters worse, scientists know very little about giraffe behaviour: how they live, the space they need to survive, where they move, and even why their necks are so long.

Researchers attach a tiny, solar-powered satellite tracker to the ossicone (the horn-like structures atop the giraffe's head) at Loisaba Wildlife Conservancy. These GPS trackers will gain critical insight into reticulated giraffes’ preferred habitat, their home ranges, and more.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AMI VITALE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A tower of reticulated giraffes run inside Leparua Community Conservancy in northern Kenya. In the last thirty years, their populations have fallen almost 40 percent.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AMI VITALE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Kenya Wildlife Service veterinarian Mathew Mutinda darts a giraffe from a helicopter inside Leparua Community Conservancy in northern Kenya.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AMI VITALE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A giraffe is released after attaching a tiny GPS tracker at Loisaba Wildlife Conservancy. An ambitious initiative has begun that will give critical insight into the dynamics of these charismatic creatures.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AMI VITALE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Scientists collared a total of 11 giraffes in Loisaba Wildlife Conservancy and the Leparua Community Conservancy.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AMI VITALE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

They attached tiny, solar-powered trackers to the bony horn-like structures on top of their heads.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AMI VITALE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Reticulated giraffe number less than 8,700 individuals — as a distinct species, it makes them some of the most endangered large mammals in the world.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AMI VITALE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Researchers attach a tiny, solar-powered satellite tracker to the ossicone (the horn-like structures atop the giraffe's head) at Loisaba Wildlife Conservancy.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AMI VITALE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Scientists collared a total of 11 giraffes in the Loisaba Wildlife Conservancy and the Leparua Community Conservancy.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AMI VITALE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

The giraffe is released back into the wild after researchers fitted it with a radio collar.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AMI VITALE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Researchers attached tiny solar-powered trackers to the bony, horn-like structures on top of their heads.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AMI VITALE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A researcher darts the shoulder of the giraffe while the chopper monitors the giraffe from the air to minimise any stress.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AMI VITALE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Kenya Wildlife Service rangers led by KWS veterinarian Dr. Mathew Mutinda quickly and quietly run a rope around the giraffe’s legs to bring it down safely inside Leparua Community Conservancy in northern Kenya.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AMI VITALE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A tiny solar-powered satellite tracker is attached to the ossicone (the bony, horn-like structures atop the giraffe's head). The unit will record their GPS positions once every hour over the coming years.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AMI VITALE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Giraffe Conservation Foundation Dr. Julian Fennessy quickly releases a giraffe after it was sedated by KWS veterinarian Dr. Mathew Mutinda at the Loisaba Wildlife Conservancy in northern Kenya.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AMI VITALE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Population numbers for giraffe fluctuate but knowing which areas are most vital for them at different times of the year and how they move across the landscape is essential to their survival.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AMI VITALE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

The giraffe's decline is believed to be caused by habitat loss and fragmentation, coupled with poaching.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AMI VITALE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, all?giraffe?belong to a single species, which are divided into nine subspecies. But a study published in 2016 challenges his notion, suggesting there may be four distinct species, each of which live in a different part of Africa.

If that’s the case, the northern and reticulated giraffe species may each have fewer than 10,000 individuals left on Earth.

Known for their unmistakable patterned hides, reticulated giraffe live predominantly in northern Kenya, with some remnant populations possibly living in southern Ethiopia and Somalia. The reticulated giraffe has dropped in number by 80 percent in recent decades due to habitat destruction and poaching. 

David O'Connor, a conservation ecologist with San Diego Zoo Global; Julian Fennessy, executive director of the Namibia-based Giraffe Conservation Foundation; and the Northern Rangelands Trust, a group of northern Kenyan community conservancies and The Nature Conservancy are all working to untangle the mystery behind their rapid decline.

Kenya Wildlife Service rangers waited for the tranquillizer to take effect. After 5-10 minutes the giraffe started “high-stepping”, indicating the drug was working. A team then wrapped a rope around the giraffe's legs to bring it down safely.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AMI VITALE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

In the first week of June, scientists collared a total of 11 giraffes in Loisaba Wildlife Conservancy and the Leparua Community Conservancy, as well as attached tiny, solar-powered trackers to the bony horn-like structures on top of their heads.

The process isn’t easy. During the recent fieldwork, Kenyan Wildlife Service veterinarian Mathew Mutinda darted the shoulder or hindquarters of a reticulated?giraffe from both a car and a helicopter. As the drug took effect, the giraffe would start “high-stepping”—resembling the movements of a Lipizzaner stallion. Four men would then quickly and quietly run a rope around the giraffe’s legs to bring it down safely. After about 10 minutes, the experts would attach the trackers and release the animal.

These GPS trackers will gain critical insight into reticulated giraffes’ preferred habitat, their home ranges, and more. Knowing which areas are vital to them at different times of year, as well as how they move across the landscape, is essential to ensuring their survival.

If successful, collaring giraffe may assist communities and conservancies to protect these towering icons of Africa.

An orphan giraffe is being fed by his Samburu keeper at the Namunyak wildlife Consevancy in Kenya. The Samburu are traditionally nomadic pastoralists. The community here has been deeply involved in creating and managing the Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AMI VITALE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Header Image: PHOTOGRAPH BY AMI VITALE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

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