Stick Your Neck Out

An Interview with Julian Fennessy

For the Southern giraffe, the numbers are looking good. That's sort of bucking the trend, so to speak, with good game conservation management from private, public, and community land. Numbers of these giraffe have been booming, so definitely there's no threat there at the moment of numbers going wrong. We just need to focus on the core areas now of east, central, and west Africa.

OR: You've mentioned that land and resource use and poaching are the main pressures driving down populations. What does that actually look like, and what is driving the illegal hunting?

Fennessy: If we look at habitat loss or fragmentation or degradation, all of this is a result of essentially human population growing in what we term rural Africa. Villages keep popping up in areas that wildlife historically moved through and around because there was low human population density, but with the human population growing, there's obviously demand for more agricultural land to feed your family. This just continues to grow and obviously fragments where wildlife can move through area. That’s how wildlife conflict starts.

As a result there is poaching, illegal hunting, and many animals go away from area. They see that conflict, they're obviously not going to go in that area. Reproductive potential is reduced greatly because they've got obviously increased stresses just like in any human population. The more stressed you are, obviously, the less you're going to reproduce.

In some areas there is much more poaching where there's a level of civil unrest and poor governance. If you look at the ivory trade, a big part of the issue relates to poor governance in countries and their inability to control it, to monitor it, and to enforce the laws around it. Very similar for giraffes. If you go through areas like northern DRC, Democratic Republic of Congo, the Lord's Resistance Army has been running around for many years and it's not fun. There's lots of people putting their lives on the line to try to conserve wildlife and giraffe numbers. We estimate the giraffe population in northern DRC to be, I think, 42.

Is that a viable population? We don't know. If you go the Central African Republic, it's been in civil unrest for more than a year now. Giraffe and other wildlife are going to suffer because people need to feed, and it's a lot of protein on the hoof.

South Sudan is very similar. Ethiopia, too. Couple that with some countries like Kenya and Tanzania, where we are likely seeing an increase in the bush meat trade. Most people think of bush meat as tiny antelopes or monkeys or things like that. If you have a big barbecue at home in Texas you're going to have a massive slab of meat. Africans love their meat, there's no doubt about it. People are killing giraffe illegally and serving it on their barbecues and selling it in rural towns. If you look at it, it just looks like any red meat. This is driving the decline in some of these countries.

Then there’s the point that people don't like to discuss: legal hunting or sustainable use. Sustainable use of giraffe can be trophy hunting, legal hunting to use the meat, but it also can be live sales of animals, which are then sold to other areas to be able to boost their population. It's sustainable use in the sense that you build up a population and you move some of them.

What we're seeing is that sustainable use as a policy, whether it be trophy hunting or not, only occurs in three countries in Africa: Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Namibia. These are the only countries that allow legal hunting. You have to apply for a permit to be able to hunt giraffes. Normally it's on private land and you still have to apply for permits, but there is some hunting on communal lands, especially in Namibia. All in all, it's very low numbers. With the increasing population of giraffes in southern Africa, trophy hunting is not causing the decline of giraffes in general at all.

This is a misconception that a lot of people are putting out there because it's a very moral, ethical, and emotional issue. I personally don't want to go out there and hunt a giraffe. However, I think we also need to be cognizant that trophy hunting is not causing the decline of giraffes in Africa -- it is illegal hunting as well as habitat losses I mentioned doing that.

OR: What are the biggest obstacles that you and GCF face, be they political or economic?

Fennessy: We actually like to propose the positives about what we are doing and what we can continue to do. I'll start by just giving you a couple of success stories in Africa. The West African giraffe only lives in Niger, only in community areas -- there's none in national parks -- and 20 years ago there were 49 individuals remaining. There's none in zoos anywhere in the world. They only existed in Niger, and they all became extinct from neighboring Mali, Nigeria, and all the way across to Senegal.

The government made a really conscientious decision. It put in place good legislation, law enforcement, and support from the NGO world to be able to do something to protect these last individuals. A lot of it came down to providing support to the community for them to protect the giraffes. What did they need? Did they need things like increased water points for their livestock? Was it improved agricultural practices? Was it access to micro-credit schemes to be able to have their own businesses? All of this was directly linked with the giraffes. If you conserve the giraffes and these numbers go up, you will see more benefits in tourism and also in development -- especially important as Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world.

Today, we have more than 500 giraffes now in the wild in Niger. Government continues to be proactive. Just last year or the year before, the second national strategy for giraffe conservation was developed. We worked closely with them on this. We have staff ourselves in Niger who work closely with the government and other local NGO's to be able to implement this national strategy. This document is the guiding principle behind everything that we do in the country -- everything from local community support to international awareness, economic development, local industry, and tourism. That's a really good success story about what's happening.