After decades of falling populations due to poaching and loss of habitat, giraffes are experiencing a comeback in Niger. Conservationists hope that other countries can learn from their success.
The leaves of the tree are gently swaying as a five-meter-tall giraffe stretches that final few inches to grab a snack off the treetop. It is a West-African giraffe, a species that can only be found in the Koure reservation about 37 miles (60 kilometers) east of Niamey, the capital of Niger. Visitors to the reserve can get up close and personal with these giants in their natural environment.
The sight was quite different 20 years ago. Only a few giraffes remain where previously thousands roamed. Most were killed by hunters and poachers or were victims of the desertification in the area. The expansion of farmland also impacted their numbers as the native plants the animals relied on for survival were replaced with crops. By the mid 1990s, only 50 west African giraffes remained in Niger.
Fight over water and trees
According to the most recent census, the area is home to almost ten times as many giraffes.
"We are still awaiting the final results but there could be as many as 450 giraffes now," said giraffe researcher Julian Fennessy, one of the founders and the director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation based in Namibia. He has been working with local organization in Niger for years on giraffe conservation.
"It is incredible that the population has grown so much," he said. "I hope that the numbers continue to increase and that giraffes will soon move back into areas where they have not lived for decades."
Fennessy attributes the unprecedented rise in numbers to a successful cooperation with the government and other conservationists both local and international.
"They offered the people alternatives to poaching and brought them in to assist with the protection of the animals," he said.
The local people were offered firewood so that they would not cut down the trees that giraffes feed on. They also dug more wells for the people so that the water sources the giraffes rely on were not compromised. Strict laws against the poaching of giraffes were also passed.
Threats still exist
Samaila Arzika shows us a few giraffes in the Koure Reserve. He is the head of a group of rangers who watch over the animals.
"The giraffes can live here in peace. There are no wild predators like lions or hyenas and no poachers," he said. One of the main dangers that is harder to protect against are the roads that pass through the reserve. One animals was recently hit by a car but overall the animals and people live together in harmony Arzika added.
Siddi Adamou agrees with this sentiment. The 22-year-old grew up on the reserve and still lives there.
"We benefit from the giraffes being here," he said. Adamou added that the animals bring tourists to the area who want to see them. "That is why we have schools, hospitals and medicine here," he said.
But the security situation in neighboring Mali and the constant threat of attacks from Boko Haram terrorists scares away the tourists. Over the past few years, only a few tourists are making the trek to the reserve meaning less money coming in for the reserve and the people living there.
Role model for Africa
This could be a threat for the animals as the money to protect them comes from these sources. Giraffe expert Fennessy fears that if the money keeps disappearing, it could lead residents to turn back to poaching. He added that this is why it is important for the government and international organizations to continue supporting the animals.
So the situation for the giraffes in Niger remains optimistic in comparison to earlier times.
"Over the past 30 years, the number of giraffes in Africa has been steadily declining," he said. But Fennessy hopes that other countries - especially in central and eastern Africa - can learn from their success in Niger.
Abdoulaye Mamane Amadou contrinuted to this article.