The Surprising State of Africa’s Giraffes

Historically, scientists believed there to be just one species of giraffe. But a recent genetic study suggests that giraffes belong to four distinct species—a revelation with profound conservation implications for these gentle giants.

A close profile of a charismatic giraffe

A giraffe, in profile. The horn-like protrusions on the animal's head are known as ossicones. (Photo: Paweł Czerwiński)

Their black tongues measure an average 20 inches in length. They splay their legs wide when going in for a drink of water. No two have the exact same coat pattern. They begin their lives with a six-foot drop to the ground. Giraffes, the world’s tallest land mammal, are certainly odd creatures.

But if you thought that seeing one lanky, gangly giraffe meant you’d seen them all, think again. It turns out there’s a lot more nuance in the giraffe world than even conservationists previously realized.

Seeing quadruple

It wasn’t long ago that scientists believed there was only one species of giraffe, with nine subspecies scattered across the African continent. In fact, this was the prevailing wisdom until 2016, when researchers announced new data suggesting giraffes should be categorized into four distinct species: 

  1. Northern giraffe (G. camelopardalis)
  2. Reticulated giraffe (G. reticulata)
  3. Masai giraffe (G. tippelskirchi)
  4. Southern giraffe (G. giraffa)

The findings were the result of a collaborative effort between the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) and Dr. Axel Janke of Germany’s Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre.

Giraffes have long been the forgotten giants of scientific research. While other iconic species like elephants, rhinos, and lions have been given significant attention, the giraffe classification scheme had undergone fairly little scrutiny.

Researchers at GCF, therefore, determined it was high time that someone investigated just how similar—or different—giraffe populations across the continent are, in order to ultimately aid their long-term conservation.

For the study, the GCF team collected tissue samples from 190 wild giraffes. These were obtained by remote biopsy darts—darts that immediately pop off the animal after impact, taking a small piece of tissue with them. This method sidestepped the need to sedate giraffes, and the animals instead experienced something akin to the sensation of a mosquito bite.

Giraffes have long been the forgotten giants of scientific research.

The samples collected by the GCF over 15 years included tissues from all major giraffe populations across Africa, representing each of the nine subspecies considered to exist at the time.

It all comes down to genetics

The distinction between a species and subspecies lies in the animals’ genes. While the “subspecies” label denotes consistent, but relatively minor, genetic variance between groups of the same species, the assignment of a new species arises out of genetic disparities so significant that individuals of different species cannot breed and produce viable offspring.

A tower of giraffe loom above the brush

A herd of Masai giraffes, easily distinguished by their dark, jagged blotches. (Photo: mrslorettarsmith0)

In other words, a species’ gene pool is entirely unique to that group of animals and cannot be recreated from any other creatures on Earth.

This new giraffe delineation could therefore have significant implications for conservationists. Giraffe numbers have been declining across the continent. In the study’s 15-year span, the number of giraffes in Africa dropped from an estimated 140,000 individuals to fewer than 100,000.

The new classification brings greater clarity to the potential loss of important genetic diversity. Of the newly recognized species, the northern giraffe numbers fewer than 4,750 individuals, while reticulated giraffes number fewer than 8,700. As distinct species, they represent some of the most endangered large mammals in the world.

Sunset creates a dramatic silhouette of a giraffe beside an acacia tree

A giraffe in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park. (Photo: Harshil Gudkta)

In contrast, southern giraffe numbers are increasing across their range. By identifying the distinct gene pools that are closest to the brink of extinction, the GCF study enables conservationists to better understand where, and how quickly, they should be directing their efforts.

Northern giraffe (C. camelopardalis)

The northern giraffe species is divided into three subspecies: the West African giraffe, which is only found in Niger; the Nubian giraffe, with a range that spans parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, and Uganda; and the Kordofan giraffe, which inhabits pockets of Chad, Central African Republic, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan.

The distinctive mottling pattern of northern giraffes.

Reticulated giraffe (C. reticulata)

Today, the reticulated giraffe is mainly sequestered to Kenya, though its range does include small parts of Ethiopia and Somalia. It is also sometimes called the netted giraffe in reference to the bold network of white lines that separate the brown patches on its coat, forming one of the more dramatic mottling patterns among all giraffe species. 

The distinctive mottling pattern of reticulated giraffes.

Masai giraffe (C. tippelskirchi)

With an estimated total population of 32,500 individuals, Masai giraffes are predominantly found across Kenya and Tanzania. An isolated group, however, has also been identified further south in Zambia, while a small population has been reintroduced into the wild in Rwanda.

The distinctive mottling pattern of Masai giraffes.

Southern giraffe (C. camelopardalis)

Like northern giraffes, southern giraffes are divided into different subspecies: Angolan and South African giraffes. Angolan giraffes can be found in Angola, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. The South African giraffe’s range is a bit broader, including parts of each country that houses Angolan giraffe, plus Zambia.

The distinctive mottling pattern of southern giraffes.

Time is running out

The results of the GCF study are being evaluated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN); if they are accepted, the IUCN will officially update the giraffe’s genetic classification system and declare threat levels for each on its Red List of Threatened Species.

Two giraffe stand back to back, with a small gathering of zebras behind them

Two handsome specimens strike a pose in Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. (Photo: Harshil Gudka)

In the meantime, though, IUCN is taking other steps to raise awareness about the urgent plight of Africa’s giraffes, escalating the threat level of some subspecies in its current classification at the end of 2018.

Two of the newly discovered giraffe species represent some of the most endangered large mammals in the world.

In 2016, IUCN listed the single giraffe species it recognizes as ‘vulnerable to extinction.’ Two years later, though, it was calling for direct attention to several subspecies, listing two as ‘critically endangered’ and another as ‘endangered.’

The organization’s aim in announcing these new threat levels is to draw more and more attention to what many consider the “silent extinction” of giraffes, so that more concerted conservation action is taken to ensure their future.

Nine great places to see giraffes in the wild (mostly).

Conservation groups like GCF are working hard to ensure all genetic variations of giraffe can be found in these majestic landscapes far into the future. While their success isn’t guaranteed, their chances can only improve in parallel with their support. And, given the current circumstances, Africa’s giraffes need all the help they can get.

A lone giraffe meanders across the plane at sunset

A lone giraffe meanders across the savannah in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. (Photo: Justin Lane)

This story was created by the StoryMaps team using the new ArcGIS StoryMaps Beta. Learn more about this next-generation storytelling tool—and try it yourself—here.