- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 26, 2009

KOURE, Niger

A crisp African dawn is breaking overhead, and Zibo Mounkaila is on the back of a pickup bounding across a sparse landscape of rocky, orange soil.

The tallest animals on earth are here, the guide says, somewhere amid the scant green bush on one side, and the thatched-dome villages on the other.

They’re here, but by all accounts, they shouldn’t be.

A hundred years ago, West Africa’s last giraffes numbered in the thousands, and their habitat stretched from Senegal’s Atlantic Ocean coast to Chad, in the heart of the continent. By the dawn of the 21st century, their world had shrunk to a tiny zone southeast of the capital, Niamey, stretching barely 150 miles long.

Their numbers dwindled so low that in 1996, they numbered a mere 50.

Instead of disappearing as many feared, though, the giraffes have bounced miraculously back from the brink of extinction, swelling to more than 200 today.

It’s an unlikely boon specialists credit to a combination of concerned conservationists, a government keen for revenue and a rare harmony with villagers who have accepted their presence - for now.

There are nine subspecies of giraffes in Africa, each distinguished by geographic location and the color, pattern and shape of their spotted coats.

The animals in Niger are known as Giraffa camelopardalis peralta, the most endangered subspecies in Africa. They have large orange-brown spots that fade into pale white legs.

Ten years ago, an estimated 140,000 giraffes inhabited Africa, according to Julian Fennessy, a Nairobi, Kenya-based conservation specialist. Today, giraffes number fewer than 100,000, devastated by poaching, war, advancing deserts and exploding human populations that have destroyed and fragmented their habitats. About half the giraffes live outside game parks in the wild, where they are more difficult to monitor and protect, Mr. Fennessy said.

Giraffe hunting is prohibited in many countries. And some, like Kenya, have taken giraffe meat off the menu of tourist restaurants that once served them up on huge skewers. Even so, Mr. Fennessy said, the plight of giraffes has largely been overlooked in conservation circles.

“We’re trying to increase awareness, educate people, help governments put conservation practices in place,” said Mr. Fennessy, who founded the Giraffe Conservation Foundation to draw attention to the animals’ plight. “If we don’t, giraffe numbers are going to continue to drop.”

The first time the trucks came for the giraffes in Koure was more than a decade ago, during the reign of an army colonel who seized power in a 1996 coup.

Col. Ibrahim Bare Mainassara was adamant that they would make a good gift for the president of neighboring Burkina Faso, and he ordered several captured, said Omer Kodjo Dovi of the Niamey-based Association to Safeguard the Giraffes of Niger.

But “the giraffes went into a panic,” Mr. Dovi said. “They couldn’t outrun the trucks.”

The animals weigh up to 2,200 pounds and can run at speeds up to 35 miles per hour. But if they fall, they can have difficulty getting up and can die.

Mr. Dovi said five were captured. Three died on the spot; two were thought to have been shipped to Burkina Faso. Nobody knows whether they ever made it.

By 1998, Niger’s government - pressed by conservation groups - began to realize the herds were about to disappear forever.

Authorities drafted new laws banning hunting and poaching. Killing a giraffe became punishable by five-year prison terms and fines amounting to hundreds of times the yearly income of farmers.

The changes had a startling effect: By 2004, the herds had nearly doubled in size.

The government “realized they had an invaluable biological and tourism resource: the last population left in West Africa,” said Jean-Patrick Suraud, a French scientist with the Association to Safeguard the Giraffes of Niger.

In 2004, though, the trucks came again - this time on a mission for President Mamadou Tandja, who ordered a pair captured for the dictator of neighboring Togo.

Four vehicles barreled down the two-lane highway toward the giraffe zone. Inside them were Togolese soldiers, government forestry rangers and three local guides, according to the independent local newspaper Le Republicain, which reported the incident and published photographs.

“They did it like cowboys,” said Mr. Suraud, who began working in Niger in 2005. “These are big animals, fragile. They can easily die of stress.”

The giraffes were tied up, blindfolded, tranquilized and hauled onto the back of open-back trucks bound for the Togo border.

They died en route.

In Africa, giraffe skin is used for drums, watertight bowls, even shoes. Their bones are employed as grinders and some believe they can help bring rain. Mr. Mounkaila, the guide, said some villagers think the hair on giraffe coats can induce fertility.

The villagers living around Koure, though, think giraffes are mostly useless, Mr. Suraud said. They aren’t domesticated, and they can’t be hunted for food. So the Association to Safeguard the Giraffes of Niger tries to teach people it’s in their interest to keep them around.

“We tell them, ‘if you are pro-giraffe, we can support you, give you loans,’ ” Mr. Suraud said. “But there is a quid pro quo. ‘We also want you to stop chopping down their bushes and plant trees.’ ”

With 10 staff and help from private European zoos and the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, the giraffe association has built wells, planted trees and educated guides such as Mr. Mounkaila, who make a living escorting visitors through “the giraffe zone,” the fenceless region the animals trek through.

Niger’s herds bring in a modest amount of tourist money for the government, too, paid in small sums through $10 fees distributed partly to the local district.

The giraffe association has focused especially on loans.

One of the beneficiaries, 55-year-old Adiza Yamba, bought a small lamb for $50. The mother of eight fed it, then sold it for twice the price after it grew, paying back the money and pocketing the profit - a huge amount in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Since 1996, Niger’s giraffe population has expanded by 12 percent per year - three times their average growth rate on the rest of the continent, Mr. Suraud said.

One reason: They face no natural predators. Poachers in Koure long ago wiped out the region’s lions and leopards, which can claim 50 percent to 70 percent of young giraffes before they reach their first year.

The giraffes had also stumbled upon a peaceful region with enough food to sustain them, and a population that mostly left them alone. Today, they crisscross the land in harmony with turbaned nomads in worn flip-flops shepherding camels and sheep.

Drawn to freshly growing vegetation that sprouts during the rainy season, the giraffes can be seen in herds of 10 or 15, wrapping 18-inch black tongues around thorny acacia trees and combretum bush.

They graze within eyesight of farmers living in huts with thatched domes, sometimes crossing through their bean and millet fields.

They are so used to humans, tourists can walk virtually right up to them.

“We don’t mind them,” Mr. Yamba said, echoing the stated view of most farmers. “Sometimes they try to eat the beans or mangos from our fields, but they never bother us.”

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