Not a cookie-cutter approach: how the uses and trade of giraffe parts vary across Africa

The giraffe is an icon of the African subcontinent, and yet, there are many gaps in knowledge about giraffes in the wild and how to best protect them. In the 21 countries where giraffe populations are found, their conservation status differs depending on the species, geography, and threats they face. Coupled with the threats of habitat loss, disease, and climate change, the trade of giraffes and their parts has been proposed as a contributing factor to population declines. However, the impact of trade on wild giraffe populations is rather complex and not well-understood. For instance, the reticulated giraffe (Giraffa reticulata) occurs mostly in Kenya, where all giraffe hunting and trade is illegal. Their numbers have declined by about 50 percent over the last three decades, resulting in an “Endangered” listing by IUCN. In the same timeframe, the population of the southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa) across Southern Africa has more than doubled. Counterintuitively, hunting and trade of this giraffe species is legal in some countries and managed through permits. 

There are fierce public discussions around how giraffe trade contributes to their decline. But it is limited by vast knowledge gaps about the prevalence and purposes of the trade. We set out to shed some light on this issue through an Africa-wide assessment for the first time: Are there different types of trade and are these factors the same throughout the African continent?  

We gathered knowledge from 75 giraffe conservation specialists, ranging from local to international NGOs, governments, and academics, alongside 161 peer- and non-peer-reviewed literature sources, found through keyword searches in English and French. 

Where are giraffe parts sourced from? 

Illegal hunting was the highest-ranked source of giraffe parts (including tails, skin, bones, and meat) in Central and East African giraffe populations. In contrast, legal hunting was ranked as the most common source in Southern African countries. Prominent illegal hunting was reported in Central, East, and West Africa as a cause for concern as the most threatened giraffe species occur in these regions. 

Are giraffe parts traded within and across international borders?

Across Central, East, and West Africa, illegal local-scale markets are the primary sinks for giraffe products. In contrast, the predominantly legal trade of giraffes in Southern Africa occurs both domestically and internationally. Though some media sources asserted that giraffe trophies from Southern Africa have negatively impacted wild populations, this association was not supported by data from peer-reviewed literature or our survey of giraffe specialists. Instead, those two information sources highlighted regional differences in the trade and offtake of giraffes with few indications of unpermitted international trade from Southern Africa. 

Who is using giraffe parts and for what?

Evidence of use for artisanal crafts, meat as food, traditional medicine, and trophies were prevalent to varying degrees relative to country and region, domestic and international scales, and legal versus illegal trade. Due to this complexity, conservation policies and strategies need to reflect conditions specific to an area and cannot adopt a one-size-fits-all approach. Countries such as Kenya, Niger, Tanzania, and Uganda have developed national giraffe conservation plans that take into account the multiple uses and users of giraffe parts. This approach should be rolled out Africa-wide for each country and each giraffe species.  

What are the impacts on wild giraffe populations?

When asked about the occurrence of trade in different giraffe parts, giraffe meat was listed most frequently, though only by a limited number of specialists. Similar uncertainty was reflected in the reviewed literature. The multiple sources, scales, and uses of giraffe parts across range countries, along with the varied approaches to regulate hunting, create a challenging set of conditions to determine the impacts on wild giraffe populations. Moving forward, it is critical to look at each species and country independently rather than apply a cookie-cutter approach. 

This assessment is the first step to integrate knowledge about trade into effective conservation policies that protect giraffes in the wild. Instances of international legal giraffe trade will now be monitored due to the 2018 listing of the giraffe in Appendix II of CITES. However, our findings highlight that an enhanced understanding of illegal giraffe hunting and trade within a domestic (national) context is essential so that appropriate conservation management plans can be developed and implemented.  

Associated recent conservation publication:

Dunn, M.E., K. Ruppert, J.A. Glikman, D. O’Connor, S. Fennessy, J. Fennessy, & D. Veríssimo. 2021. Investigating the international and pan-African trade of giraffe parts and derivatives. Conservation science and practice.

Positionality Statement:

The authors are practitioners based in Europe, North America, and Southern Africa and have conservation and research interests in numerous countries in Africa. The recognition of the lack of knowledge regarding the levels and effects of giraffe trade triggered the interrogation of the research. From their base in Namibia, JF and SF currently facilitate conservation research and management of all giraffe species in 16 African countries. Together, they have a collective experience of over 40 years in Africa. DO’C has been involved in giraffe conservation for over a decade and currently supports collaborative giraffe conservation and research programs across nine countries from a US-based NGO. MD and DV are based in Imperial College London and Oxford University respectively and have conducted research on illegal wildlife trade in several countries. JAG. and KR worked at San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, a US-based NGO, during this project. Their work as social scientists has been enhanced by relationships and knowledge from colleagues in Kenya, where their collaborations centre on human–wildlife interactions.