JUST four months after announcing the discovery of a dwarf giraffe in Namibia, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) on Wednesday announced another discovery - that there are in fact four species of giraffe in the world instead of one.
A statement issued by the Namibian-based foundation indicates that new research has confirmed the existence of four distinct giraffe species.
Until recently, giraffes were widely recognised as a single species with several sub-species. In 2016, a collaborative research by the GCF, Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre in Germany and other partners found otherwise.
They analysed giraffe genetics for more than a decade, initially, to find out how similar (or different) giraffes living in various parts of Africa were to each other.
The four species include the Masai giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi), the northern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), the reticulated giraffe (Giraffa reticulata), and the southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa). Both the southern and northern giraffe have two and three distinct sub-species, respectively.
GCF co-director Stephanie Fennesey told The Namibian that there are only about 117 000 giraffe remaining in the wild in all of Africa (fewer than elephants) and that about 13 000 of these are in Namibia. She said 50% of the world giraffe population is in southern Africa.
Giraffe numbers have dropped by almost 30% over the last three decades because of habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching, disease, civil war and climate change.
Giraffe as one species are currently listed as 'vulnerable' on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's 'red list', but separate assessments of each species would likely show three of the four species as 'endangered' or 'critically 'endangered' - highlighting the need for increased conservation efforts.
"The new findings reported in the peer-reviewed publication, Current Biology, make a strong case for recognising four distinct giraffe species. This is a major step in protecting each species, some of which are under severe threat in the wild," read the GCF statement.
Axel Janke, a geneticist at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre said they were "extremely surprised" to find such large genetic differences in giraffe in their initial study as there body shape and coat pattern differences appear limited.
Julian Fennessy, co-director of the GCF, said the foundation sees its key role in acting as a catalyst to increase giraffe conservation efforts by working collaboratively with African governments, non-governmental organisations and other partners.
GCF is the only organisation in the world that focusses solely on the conservation and management of giraffe in the wild throughout Africa, and currently implements and supports giraffe conservation efforts in 16 African countries.