Giraffes fight for survival on their final frontier

The Times of London
Koure, Niger

Adamou Siddo takes off his shoes and swings his tall, lean body up into a nearby tree. Within seconds his head is poking out of the top of the branches as he scans the scrubby landscape in search of West Africa’s last giraffes.

Niger’s giraffes live in the wild and Mr Siddo is one of ten guides from the town of Koure employed to look after the threatened mammals and take visitors to see them. As recently as the 1960s thousands of giraffes could be found in herds, but poaching, deforestation and climate change meant that by the mid-1990s the animals had disappeared from everywhere in West Africa but Niger.

Even here fewer than 50 were surviving by 1996. The number went down by another dozen that year in a botched attempt to trap giraffes destined to be presidential gifts. The outlawing of poaching, which used to account for up to ten giraffe deaths a year, and the internationally funded management of the last remaining herd has resulted in a steady increase in numbers and experts say there are now as many as 167 in Niger. But they may become the victims of their own success.

“The number in the herd is actually too high for Koure because there is not enough food for the giraffes and they are having to spread out,” said Hassoumi Diallo, a forestry manager. “The giraffes are making their own solutions and have started to colonise other areas.”

An adult giraffe eats 30kg (66lb) of leaves each day. During the rainy season, from July to September, there is plenty to eat, but in the dry months they have to move farther afield and are increasingly finding their natural habitat encroached upon by farmers.

The problem is particularly acute in Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries. Humans are largely restricted to a thin strip of fertile land along the southern edge of the Sahara, but the population has exploded in the past two decades, more than doubling to 13 million.

Fatima Sali started growing crops in the bush surrounding Koure seven years ago when the land close to town became too crowded.

“I don’t fear the giraffes but I am worried because they eat my crops. Yesterday the giraffes were right here,” says the 30-year-old mother of five, gesturing to a patch of dirt a few yards from the domed grass hut where she lives.

“When they come I chase them away.”

To make way for their crops, farmers are clearing the acacia trees that giraffes love to eat, using their long black tongues to curl around the thorny branches and pluck off the leaves. While not fond of the human staples — millet and sorghum — giraffes sometimes eat cultivated beans and mangoes, often destroying crops along the way.

The conflict between man and beast is played out across sub-Saharan Africa, where natural resources are scarce and populations expanding.

In Uganda, herders spreading into Queen Elizabeth National Park kill the rare tree-climbing lions that prey on their cattle. In Namibia, ranchers shoot cheetahs on sight, and in South Africa swelling elephant herds are threatened with culls.

The people of Koure have learnt to live alongside the giraffes and have benefited from tourism, which brought in about £6,000 over the past two years for community projects such as digging wells, buying fertiliser and building a school.

But as the herd thrives it will inevitably meet those less inclined to share their meagre resources with the animal, particularly if is there is no direct benefit to them.

“These giraffes are in their natural habitat but they are also in contact with the human population, and they cause problems for the people so it is necessary to help the people as well as the giraffes,” said Mr Diallo.