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What Giraffes Tell Us About Zoos, Endangered Species, And Human (Mis)Perception Of Animal Intelligence

October 6, 2014

Who you calling stupid?

So being a hit in zoos didn’t translate into scientific interest and understanding of giraffes in the wild:

Giraffes are the “forgotten megafauna,” said Julian Fennessy, a giraffe researcher and the executive director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. “You hear all about elephants, Jane Goodall and her chimpanzees, Dian Fossey and her mountain gorillas, but there’s been a massive paucity of information about giraffes.”

Now all that is changing fast, as a growing cadre of researchers seek to understand the spectacular biology and surprisingly complex behavior of what Dr. Fennessy calls a “gentle giant and the world’s most graceful animal.” Scientists have lately discovered that giraffes are not the social dullards or indifferent parents they were reputed to be, but instead have much in common with another charismatic mega-herbivore, the famously gregarious elephant.

Well, just because scientists have been ignoring giraffes, doesn’t mean the giraffe-loving zoo public hasn’t been concerned about giraffes in the wild, right? Zoos say they give people a passion for animals that helps protect them in the wild. Apparently not. According to the story: “The species is not listed as endangered, but researchers point with alarm to evidence that in the past 15 years, the giraffe population has plummeted some 40 percent, to less than 80,000 from 140,000.”

Which raises an important question, I think: how does a species which has seen a 40% population crash in 15 years NOT get listed as endangered?

This story is also one more datapoint in Zimmermann’s Axiom Of Animal Intelligence (which states that research into just about any animal never shows it is dumber and less sentient than we thought). To wit:

Female giraffes, for example, have been found to form close friendships with one another that can last for years, while mother giraffes have displayed signs of persistent grief after losing their calves to lions.

“Giraffes have been underestimated, even thought of as a bit stupid,” said Zoe Muller, a wildlife biologist at the University of Warwick in England. But through advances in satellite and aerial tracking technology, improved hormonal tests and DNA fingerprinting methods to extract maximum data from giraffe scat, saliva and hair, and a more statistically rigorous approach to analyzing giraffe interactions, she said, “we’ve been able to map out their social structure and relationships in a much more sophisticated way; there’s a lot more going on than we appreciated.”

So one story, three important insights. 1) Being a zoo star doesn’t appear to do much for you in the wild; 2) The process by which species are labeled and treated as “endangered” needs a re-examination; and 3) Yet another species labeled “stupid” by the human species turns out to be not so stupid.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 10, 2014 2:48 am

    Interesting angle. Giraffes are most definitely taken for granted, more an interesting piece of scenery than anything else.

    How does a species become listed as endangered? It’s the responsibility of the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) who run the Red List. It used to meet every four years for scientists to to assess risk of extinction and add (or, more rarely, remove) a species from the list. These days, it meets every second year because of the ever-increasing threat of extinction. They’ve been raising awareness and helping conserve endangered speices for fifty years. There’s even a campaign you can join to help them ( I urge anyone reading this to do so. If the NY Times article is accurate, then the giraffe will almost certainly be listed in the near future.

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