Are Giraffes Endangered? Conservation Status and Threats

Global giraffe populations have decreased by 40% in 30 years

Mother and young reticulated giraffe in Laikipia, Kenya.
Robert Muckley / Getty Images

Although the giraffe is officially considered “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), just a step below “endangered,” there are several subspecies on the edge of extinction.

Despite being one of the most widely recognized and iconic animals on Earth, the vulnerability of the graceful giraffe has flown under the radar for a long time. Many people didn’t even realize that giraffes were in trouble until the species moved quietly from "least concern" to "vulnerable" in 2016.

By 2018, seven subspecies had been reassessed, with four found to have decreasing populations. Of the nine giraffe subspecies, two are now listed as critically endangered, two are endangered, and two are vulnerable.

Giraffe Subspecies Conservation Status

  • Angolan giraffe - Least concern
  • Kordofan giraffe - Critically endangered
  • Masai giraffe - Endangered
  • Nubian giraffe - Critically endangered
  • Reticulated giraffe - Endangered
  • Rothschild's giraffe - Near threatened
  • South African giraffe - Least concern
  • Thornicroft's giraffe - Vulnerable
  • West African giraffe - Vulnerable


The Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the organization responsible for regulating the international trade of wildlife parts, didn’t even protect giraffes until 2019. That same year, a study published in the journal Mammal Review found that giraffe populations as a whole had declined by 40% over the last 30 years, with only about 68,000 mature individuals left in the wild.

The world’s most endangered giraffe subspecies, the Nubian giraffe, only had about 455 left; even the Thornicroft’s giraffe and the West Africa giraffe numbered 420 and 425 respectively, despite their “vulnerable” status. What’s more, subspecies like the northern giraffe and the Masai giraffe lost 37% and 14% of their range, and the entire giraffe species declined overall in eight out of their extant 21 countries. Aside from illegal poaching, giraffes are mainly threatened by habitat loss, civil unrest, and the adverse effects of climate change.

Endangered Nubian giraffes surrounded by acacia trees
The Nubian giraffe has sharply defined chestnut colored spots surrounded by mostly white lines, while undersides lack spotting. Danita Delimont / Getty Images

Habitat Loss

According to the Mammal Review study, Giraffes have become completely extirpated in seven different countries over the last 10 years, including Mali, Nigeria, Guinea, and Senegal. An increase in human populations and urban development, as well as the industry growth that goes with it (unregulated agriculture, mines, etc.), are threatening to turn giraffe territory into human territory.

And, since urban growth in Africa is projected to double by 2050, faster even than the continent's ability to access safe water, giraffes are becoming more and more restricted. This fact holds true even in officially protected areas, which may become too small to support giraffe populations in the future, as natural spaces continue to decrease.

Climate Change

African ecosystems are delicate, so altering rain patterns can cause plants to die or increase drought chances. These shifts lead to degradation of plant food sources, less access to water, and complete overhauls of giraffe habitat composition. Human responses to climate change (such as building dams) can block giraffes from extending their ranges as resources become scarce. Seasonal instability due to climate change can even affect reproduction and newborn survival, since giraffes can naturally time their mating seasons to align with periods of high food availability.

Civil Unrest

Civil wars within African countries can affect giraffe populations regardless of national protective measures. As conflict weighs heavy on human populations, resources can be stretched thin, causing enforcement to dwindle and wildlife trafficking or poaching to go unchecked.

A study on the effect of warfare on wildlife found that civil unrest directly correlates to the occurrence and severity of wild large herbivore population declines in Africa’s protected areas. The study also discovered that 71% of these protected areas were directly affected by war between 1947 and 2010, and that conflict was the most influential predictor of wildlife population trends there.

Illegal Poaching

Throughout many regions of Africa, giraffes are hunted for their meat, pelts, bones, hair, and tails for jewelry and medicinal purposes as part of the illegal bushmeat trade. Although wild giraffes are found only in Africa, threats from poaching aren’t confined to the boundaries of the continent. In fact, a 2018 investigation by Humane Society International revealed that about 40,000 giraffe parts had been illegally imported to the United States from Africa between 2006 and 2015 — adding up to over 3,500 individual giraffes. 

Despite the clear decline in giraffe populations over the last three decades, they are not protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In 2017, the Center for Biological Diversity, Humane Society International, The Humane Society of the United States, International Fund for Animal Welfare, and Natural Resources Defense Council organized a joint petition seeking ESA endangered status for giraffes. It took a full two years before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to conduct further review of the species.

The placement of a species under the ESA, whether that species is domestic or foreign, puts it under the protection of U.S. Fish and Wildlife inspectors who patrol the country’s international borders. Wildlife control officers are tasked with ensuring that the United States doesn’t contribute to the further decline of ESA protected species by stopping illegal shipments and intercepting snuggled wildlife or wildlife parts. Additionally, although the ESA cannot prohibit the hunting of listed species outside of the United States, it does require the hunter to obtain a permit asserting that they operated under a supported conservation hunting program (to enhance the survival of the species) before bringing their “trophy” back across the border.

What We Can Do

A South African giraffe browsing in Kruger National Park
South African giraffe in Kruger National Park. SoopySue / Getty Images

There’s a lot more to the giraffe than its signature long neck. Groups of giraffes (appropriately known as “towers”) are essential to their natural ecosystems, spreading seeds as they forage and promoting the healthy growth of plant species that other mammals simply cannot reach. These incredibly unique animals have shown their resilience in the past, as evidenced by the South African giraffe subspecies, which increased by 150% between 1979 and 2013 thanks to conservation efforts in Kruger National Park.

Support Conservation Organizations

Apart from contacting your local representatives to show your support for conservation legislation, you can also donate or raise awareness for organizations involved with giraffe protection. For example, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation is the only NGO solely dedicated to the conservation and ethical management of wild giraffes in Africa. The nonprofit is involved in giraffe conservation programs in 16 African countries and organizes World Giraffe Day every year in June.

Be an Environmentally-Conscious Consumer

While traveling, be sure to avoid purchasing products that could be made from giraffe parts. If you’re dreaming of an African safari to see giraffes in their natural habitat, opt for a sustainable tour company that minimizes environmental impact and observes animals respectfully by keeping a safe distance. Be sure that the company benefits the local community and contributes to wildlife conservation, as well.

Indirect Protections

As the world’s tallest mammals, giraffes rely heavily on Africa’s high reaching trees for food. Supporting the reforestation of critical areas in Africa where acacia trees (giraffe’s favorite food and main nutrition source) thrive is imperative to giraffe conservation. Another indirect way to support giraffes is by helping to solve social issues such as poverty and hunger in African countries, so that impoverished citizens aren’t forced to rely on hunting giraffes for meat or income.

View Article Sources
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