Sunday, 9 October 2011

Thieving giraffes endanger human goodwill

One of the biggest hurdles to conservation is human-wildlife conflict, which can be especially problematic in areas where animals attack humans or cause serious economic losses by eating crops. Across much of Africa, elephants, leopards, and lions have a particularly bad reputation for causing tensions with their human neighbors, but in Niger, the culprit is giraffes--specifically, the only remaining population of white giraffes, Giraffa camelopardalis peralta.

 (A white giraffe, Giraffa camelopardalis peralta)

Although these animals were previously found throughout West Africa, increases in guns, agriculture, and deforestation caused serious declines in their population numbers, such that Niger was the only place they could be found by the end of the 1970's. White giraffes have been concentrated in the Kouré region since 1990, where hunting is banned and an emphasis on ecotourism has been used to encourage support of these animals. Although this worked for over a decade, human-giraffes conflicts have become increasingly common over the past 10 years. The major problem is that the giraffes eat cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) and mango (Mangifera indica) crops, in some cases decimating most of a harvest.

Researchers from the Université des Sciences et Technique du Languedoc, the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development, and the Université Abdou Moumouni have conducted surveys among residents of the Fakara and North Dallol Bosso regions of the Niger giraffe zone in order to better understand the nature of human-giraffe conflicts. They found that the giraffes were responsible for 3 types of damage: consumption of cowpeas that had been harvested but left in fields prior to storage in granaries, depredation of harvests already stored in granaries, and consumption of fruits (particularly mangoes) from orchards.

 (A cowpea field)

Overall, theft of both cowpea and mango crops was  most intense at the time of harvest--when mangoes were ripest and when cowpeas had just been collected. This reflects not only the attractiveness of the food items, but also the low availability of wild-growing alternatives at those times of year. Although losses were reported to be higher in fields than in granaries (a group of giraffes can nearly eat through an entire field during a single night), losses from granaries can actually be worse because they represent substantial portions of the annual harvest, as opposed to those from just a single field.

Local chiefs estimated that over 50% of families in their villages are affected by giraffes; in nearly a quarter of the villages surveyed, this number exceeded 70%. Thus, it is unsurprising that 87% of people felt that the presence of giraffes was not an advantage--despite their role in the ecotourism industry. Interestingly, attitudes towards giraffes did not vary depending on whether a close relative earned money from giraffe-related ecotourism opportunities, or whether the individuals surveyed had alternative sources of income that were not affected by giraffe eating habits. Perhaps even more interesting was that the giraffe-friendly group included a higher proportion of affected cowpea farmers than the giraffe-unfriendly group. Thus, unlike the situation documented elsewhere in Africa with elephants and predatory cats, there seems to be a disconnect between personal experience and attitude.

(The Niger countryside)

When asked about the major risk factors associated with giraffe plundering behaviors, over a quarter of people indicated that they occurred because giraffes were no longer afraid of people. Other moderately supported reasons included hunger, attractiveness/accessibility of harvests, poor protection of crops, a growing giraffe population, lack of monitoring of the giraffes, and the protected status of the animals. Only 2% of people indicated that the giraffes might be driven to foraging in agricultural areas because local deforestation--to create agricultural fields and acquire wood for kindling--is depriving them of food.

Surprisingly, despite the dissatisfaction with giraffe activities and the acknowledgement that crops are not adequately protected, only a third of people had attempted to prevent damage by installing barriers, and only 4% of farmers had built fences or trenches (which are more effective). A higher proportion of mango orchard owners employed fences, but these were more for guarding against dogs and children; furthermore, the fences are generally so close to the edges of the orchard that giraffes are able to reach over them and steal fruit from trees at the edge of the field.

A survey in 2006 found that the white giraffe population in Niger comprised 144 individuals, up from only 65 in 1995. Clearly, the regulations and ecotourism opportunities in the giraffe zone are having a beneficial effect--but how much longer will this last if the giraffes continue to raid agricultural areas? Further, how will their populations be impacted as the human population grows and not only occupies more space, but also further reduces the availability of wild vegetation for the giraffes to eat?

(A group of giraffes in Botswana, where white giraffes--such as the second animal from the left--are even more rare than in Niger. Small groups of white giraffes have been observed many kilometers away from the protected zone in Niger, suggesting that a healthy population in one country might eventually lead to increased white giraffe numbers elsewhere in Africa--but only if the animals are not persecuted.)

Probably not much longer if effective, affordable mitigation techniques are not adopted by more farmers. This includes barriers, fences, and trenches, which are already used to varying degrees, but also new innovations (including light, scent, and noise deterrents) like those that have been developed elsewhere to reduce crop raiding by elephants. Farmers can also be encouraged to reduce the amount of time that elapses between harvesting their crops and moving them to granaries; the distribution of carts to all farmers should aid in this endeavor. It will also be essential to review the distribution of wealth from ecotourism, since entire communities may suffer from giraffe crop thefts, but only some individuals may make money off visitors who come to see the animals. Perhaps it might also be effective to educate farmers about how their own activities are having an impact on those of the giraffes.

So far, poaching of white giraffes in Niger remains rare despite the frustration that many farmers feel. Hopefully, this high level of tolerance can be perpetuated through future management plans based on more detailed studies of giraffe behavior and dynamics of ecotourism income. If not, this fragile population could reach a critical threshold beyond which it cannot rebound.

Leroy, R., de Visscher, M.-N., Halidou, O., Boureima, A. 2009. The last African white giraffes live in farmers' fields. Biodiversity and Conservation 18:2663-2677.

Thanks to the following websites for providing the images used in this post:


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