Giraffes are probably one of many species that we don’t list when we talk about endangered species, but apparently they are. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global authority on the conservation status of wild animals and plants, announced Thursday that Masai giraffes has announced that a subspecies, Masai giraffes, are now endangered mainly because of poaching and changes in land use.
Actually, there are about 35,000 Masai giraffes remaining. It sounds like a lot, but that population has fallen by nearly 50% in the last three decades. Giraffe population in Africa has decreased by up to 40% in that same timeframe.
Tanya Sanerib, international legal director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said that Masai giraffes are the ones that pop to our minds when we about giraffes. “This was devastating news…It really sounds the alarm bell. It really indicates that we need to be doing more for giraffes internationally and with whatever tools are available,” said Sanerib.
This is the first time the Masai subspecies get assessed on its own. Before, these giraffes were included as part of the IUCN Red List’s general giraffe listing (Giraffa camelopardalis). That time, IUCN considered giraffes vulnerable, which was better. Out of nine subspecies of giraffes, Nubian and Kordofan giraffes are critically endangered.
Kenya and Tanzania, where Masai giraffes live, have prohibited giraffe hunting. But people still poach their hide, meat, bones, and tails. According to IUCN, an estimated 2 to 10% of the population is hunted illegally every year in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.
Now what’s worse is that this poaching keeps increasing because there are emerging markets for giraffe parts, including tail-hair jewelry and bone carvings. Tanzanian media have reported that there’s a belief among some that giraffe bone marrow and brains can cure HIV and AIDS.
Human populations which have grown and expanded into what used to be wildlands drive giraffe population away as well.
Not enough awareness
As I mentioned before, this species is underrated when it comes to endangered animals. Compared to other threatened species, giraffes have always been under the radar. According to giraffe researcher Axel Janke, while thousands of scientific papers have been written on white rhinos, only about 400 cover giraffes. Now, there are fewer giraffes than elephants left in Africa.
Julian Fennessy, co-director and co-founder of the nonprofit Giraffe Conservation Foundation, said, “They’re the forgotten megafauna, so to speak. They’ve sort of slipped away, sadly, while more attention has been given to elephant, rhino, lion, and other species.”
Sanerib said that we still don’t have enough information about giraffes and it would be a shame to lose them before we learn enough. Apparently, giraffes have complex circulatory systems that could have implications for understanding human’s high blood pressure. Researchers have also found that they hum at night, and they have no idea why.
“We have this species that’s going extinct, and we have these phenomenal, really fascinating things about them that we don’t know the answers to,” said Sanerib.
For years, consensus has stated that there’s one species of giraffe with nine subspecies. However, evidence of genetic differences has emerged in recent years, suggesting that there are actually four species of giraffe and that the Masai is its own species.
Masai giraffes aren’t widely recognized as a unique species, Fennessy says categorizing them as their own could reap more conservation benefits. United States’ Endangered Species Act grants protections to animals at the species level, which means giraffes are not considered endangered by U.S. standards, even though several subspecies clearly are. But this new categorization would help them in the future.
“By identifying that they are endangered, hopefully now collaboratively with governments and partners, we can turn the tide before it’s too late,” said Fennessy.
Parasites that cause species go endangered
Sometimes nature has a will, but most of the time, it’s humans who are the main culprits of endangered or threatened animals.
San Marcos River Foundation stated that the river, which is home to some of the most biologically diverse aquatic ecosystems in the southwestern United States, now harbors harboring multiple threatened and endangered species.
Researchers at Texas State University fear that an “increasingly severe” parasite problem in the San Marcos and Comal rivers could threaten the fish that live in them, including those that are already endangered, the fountain darter.
The parasite, called haplorchis pumilio, first arrived in the rivers through an invasive Asian snail, which is known to host more parasites than any snail in the world. David Huffman, a parasitologist of Texas State’s biology department, said the parasite was brought to America with the aquarium trade in the mid-20th century.
How did the snail make its way into the rivers? You guessed it right. People dumping their aquariums into the water.
Huffman, who is also a member of the Texas Invasive Species Institute told Community Impact Newspaper that the larvae of the parasitic worm are known to penetrate the skin of fish and cause trauma and inflammation, which affects their ability to swim.
“This is not a trivial issue for a fish, of course. They have to get their food that way and they have to escape from predators that way,” said Huffman.
Haplorchis parasite negatively affects fish in the river. In the caged fish studies so far, fountain darters seem to be able to reproduce at a rate that allows the population to make up for the fish killed by the parasite. Allison Scott, a graduate student who conducts research in Huffman’s lab, said that she is not sure how long that will continue as the parasites gradually build up in the fish.
“Fountain darters have been able to reproduce sort of in a compensatory way; they do seem to be replacing themselves, that we know of. The problem is we don’t know how healthy these fish are and how long that’s going to be able to continue if every fish that’s [in an area of the river where the snail is present]is maybe not even living until the age where it can reproduce. Because at the rates of parasitism that we’re seeing, there’s no way that fish could survive one year in those waters. And that’s how long it takes fountain darters to mature,” said Scott.
Scott said that she’s also not certain about how the parasite can affect fountain darters in the long term. But one thing for sure, this parasite matter is an urgent issue that needs to be paid attention to not only for the sake of the endangered species, but for all of the fish in the river.