Stick Your Neck Out

An Interview with Julian Fennessy


Octavian Report: What is it about giraffes that drew you to them?

Julian Fennessy: I'll be honest, I grew up not worrying about animals or wildlife or landscape. I was a city boy in Melbourne through and through. I loved playing Aussie rules football, loved going to the pub. I realized, when I visited Africa, that there was something raw, something remote beyond city life. Then when I started to work in the northwest of Namibia I did quite a lot of work on elephants and giraffes at the same time. The more and more I looked into the giraffe side, the less information was out there, especially compared to elephants -- and there was nothing ever long term. There was always a good study for a year or two or maybe three as part of a Ph.D., but no one had actually ever followed through with working in the field in Africa.

I really found a niche, for want of a better word. I'm probably not the greatest scientist in the world, let's be honest. But I'm a fairly good manager and so I realized that something needs to be done and giraffes need to get a voice. I was in the envious position of being a pushy Australian who decided to try and make a difference.

OR: Can you talk about the ecology of giraffes across Africa, and how they came to be in their current precarious situation?

Fennessy: In the zoo world, they've done a few surveys over the years about what peoples’ favorite animal is. Giraffe is probably number one, or at least top three. It’s one of the most charismatic, beautiful, enigmatic, iconic, and quirky animals in the world. When you're a young kid and you see a giraffe it doesn't make sense. It's like a fairy tale; it's like a Dr. Seuss animal.

When you go to game reserves in Africa, giraffes are everywhere. You see them when you go to Kruger Park, or Tusha, or the Maasai Mara, so the assumption is “Wow, giraffes are doing really well.” But unfortunately what we've been observing over the years is that is not so. The reality is in some of those parks, they are doing well and especially in Southern Africa. But in the rest of the places where we haven't been keeping an eye out the numbers have been dwindling. Our best estimates suggest that in the last 30 years the numbers have dropped by almost 40 percent from about 150-odd thousand to under 100,000 now.

This is obviously what we term a sign of extinction, for want of a better word. We ourselves have been looking at the numbers for about the last eight to 10 years and trying to figure out what's going on. We were seeing this trend in many places. Obviously it didn't surprise us, but we didn't really have the marketing power of many of the large NGO's or corporates in the world to be able to tell everyone. So our voice has been slowly but consistently getting out and it’s been mostly with the support of the media -- and that's brilliant. Social media plays a big role, but also through journalists being able to help tell the story. We did a documentary with BBC and PBS, which David Attenborough narrated. Its just recently been nominated for an Emmy award as one of the outstanding nature documentaries for this year.

This is the message that we're trying to get out there: not only are the animals dwindling, but there's many reasons why. The biggest threat is habitat loss and habitat fragmentation. Definitely poaching -- illegal hunting -- is having an impact, especially across Eastern Africa and Central Africa. This is coupled with things like disease, often more common when populations get smaller and fragmented and stressed.

These are all the threats going on -- with humans being the major driver behind it all. Recently, based on about 10 years or so of research, we've been doing genetic analysis of all major populations across Africa. We've come to the idea that there's at least four species of giraffe.

OR: What are those species?

Fennessy: The species we're proposing are the Northern giraffe, which consists of the current West African giraffe, which is in Niger; the Kordofan giraffe, which is across central African countries; the Nubian giraffe; and the Rothschild giraffe. The Rothschild giraffe we've shown is genetically identical to the Nubian giraffe, so actually should be lost and become one and the same, what we call subsumed. That's the Northern giraffe as a species with three different subspecies.

Then there's the Reticulated giraffe. Mostly in Kenya but going across a bit into Somalia and into southern Ethiopia. They've got really quite distinct patterns. Really bold liver colors. This is most people’s favorite-looking giraffe out there.

The next one we have is the Masai giraffe, which is quite plentiful. They are predominantly in Southern Kenya and Tanzania. We propose -- again, based on many years of genetic research -- that what's called the Thornicroft’s giraffe in Zambia is actually genetically identical to the Masai giraffe.

The final one is the Southern giraffe, which consists of the Angolan subspecies and the South African subspecies of giraffe. They're close enough genetically to be species, but they are geographically separated throughout bits of Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa -- separated enough to warrant them being different subspecies.

We figured out that some of these proposed species are actually really low in numbers. The Northern giraffe in total is less than 5,000 individuals in the wild. Compare that to many other species. Look at the elephant. The African elephant probably numbers between 400 and 450,000 across the continent and we've probably got the Northern giraffe at less than 5,000. We've got the Reticulated giraffe with less than 9,000. We've got the Masai giraffe, which probably number quite a lot more -- in the low 30,000’s -- but they've dropped by just over 50 percent in the last 30 years alone.