The giraffe is loved and known across the world, but very few people are aware that we are losing both this iconic species, and its only close living relative, the elusive okapi, at an unprecedented and alarming rate.
Giraffe and okapi are the only living species in the Giraffidae family and share a number of common features, such as elongated necks and long, dark-coloured tongues (both adaptations for feeding on tree leaves). The giraffe is found in savannah regions of 21 countries across sub-Saharan Africa while its forest cousin, the shy and mysterious okapi, is restricted to the dense, lowland rainforests of central and north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Giraffe numbers have plummeted from 140,000 in the late 1990s to less than 80,000 today. In the past 30 years, the giraffe has become extinct in at least 7 African countries and okapi numbers are thought to have halved. This dramatic loss has gone largely unnoticed, even by seasoned conservationists. The main threats to both species are habitat loss and, increasingly, illegal hunting and poaching.
We have both giraffe and okapi here at ZSL London Zoo and they are some of the most popular animals on display. ZSL is involved in both giraffe and okapi conservation in the wild and has a particularly long and ongoing history with okapi. The okapi was formally described at a meeting of the Society in 1901, ZSL and ICCN (the Congolese nature conservation institute) captured the first camera trap photos of okapi in the wild in 2008, ZSL and ICCN launched a major collaborative project in 2010 to assess the status of okapi across its range and develop the first ever okapi conservation strategy, and ZSL and Cardiff University completed a pioneering okapi genetics study in 2014. I’ve been involved in all of these exciting achievements – except for the first one! – and now co-chair the okapi side of the newly-formed IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group, co-hosted by ZSL and the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF), which launched in 2013.
The Specialist Group is currently conducting the first-ever detailed assessment of giraffe as a species as well as all its 9 subspecies and it is expected that by early 2016 most, if not all, will end up in one of the IUCN Red List threatened categories. The okapi was recently listed as ‘Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List following a workshop in DRC coordinated by the Specialist Group, ZSL and ICCN, bringing together okapi experts from across the species’ range for the first time.
Despite being some of the most iconic and recognisable animals in the world, giraffids are probably also the least-researched large mammals in the world. Colleagues from the Specialist Group and I have been involved in new research published today in a special ‘giraffid’ issue of the African Journal of Ecology. This research provides important new information on the ecology, population and distribution of giraffe and okapi, shedding light on poorly-understood behaviours such as the function of all-male giraffe herds and the leadership role taken by older females in the group. It also highlights how little we still know about these surprisingly enigmatic African cousins and calls for improved research and monitoring to secure the future of both species before it is too late.
To learn more download our policy paper on giraffe and okapi, our okapi status paper and papers from the rest of the special issue of the African Journal of Ecology (free to download until 31 May 2015)
Select a blog
Our people are our greatest asset and we realise our vision for a world where wildlife thrives through their ideas, skills and passion. An inspired, informed and empowered community of people work, study and volunteer together at ZSL.
At ZSL, a key area of our work is the employment of Nature-based Solutions – an approach which both adapt to and mitigates the impacts of climate change. These Solutions, which include habitat protection and restoration, are low-cost yet high-impact, and provide multiple benefits to people and wildlife. We ensure that biodiversity recovery is at the heart of nature-based solutions.
A blog for lovers of ZSL London Zoo, bringing you extraordinary animal facts and exclusive access to the world's oldest scientific zoo.
Do you love wildlife? Discover more about our amazing animals at the UK's biggest zoo!
We're working around the world to conserve animals and their habitats, find out more about our latest achievements.
From the field to the lab, catch up with the scientists on the cutting edge of conservation biology at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology.
A day in Discovery and Learning at ZSL is never dull! The team tell us all about the exciting sessions for school children, as well as work further afield.
Every month, one of the pieces held in ZSL’s Library and at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo will feature here as Artefact of the Month.
Read testimonials from our Members and extracts from ZSL's award winning members' magazine, Wild About.
The Chagos archipelago is a rare haven for marine biodiversity. Hear from the team about our projects to protect the environments in the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).
ZSL works across Asia, from the famous national parks of Nepal to marine protected areas in the Philippines. Read the latest updates on our conservation.
An Open Access journal for research at the interface of remote sensing, ecology and conservation.