A Silent Extinction

Giraffe have always been special to me. Even with long, gangly limbs, they move with unhurried poise and confidence, but still look endearing with their huge eyes and long eyelashes.

On TV this week there was a repeat of an episode in Attenborough’s Natural World series: Africa’s Gentle Giants. The story centred on Dr Julian Fennessy, Co-Founder and Co-Director of Giraffe Conservation Foundation. Fennessy has been working to conserve giraffe for more than 20 years, and is a true pioneer in research on this secretive and surprisingly little-known animal.

Many people, including myself until very recently, are naïve to the true situation that wild giraffe currently face. Among other African species such as elephants, gorillas and leopards, for some reason giraffe have taken a backseat in the public eye. While words like “beautiful” and “majestic” always spring to mind when we talk about giraffe, how many of us could confidently say how many there were? I was shocked to discover how wrong I was when giraffe statistics were presented alongside those of another African giant. Currently, there are around 500,000 African elephants left, but only 90,000 giraffe. For the first time ever, I doubted what David Attenborough was telling me. How could that be possible? I began to look online, but of course it was true. There are nearly five times as many African elephants than giraffe left on the planet. It’s a statistic that astounded me.

Source: BBC*

Giraffe are not only unmistakable symbols of Africa and the tallest animal on Earth, but they are important to the ecosystem. Like bees, giraffe are excellent pollinators, and pass pollen from tree to tree as they graze. They also spread seeds in their dung, another vital part of maintaining a diverse and sustainable landscape. Conserving giraffe protects not only the animal but its environment, ultimately affecting so many other species that call Africa home.

In two decades, giraffe numbers have fallen by 40% and they have become extinct in seven countries. They are hunted for meat and their habitats are slowly disappearing. One of the most vulnerable populations – a group of less than a thousand Rothschild’s giraffe – lives in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda. These animals are walking on a literal time bomb; beneath their feet lies 75% of Uganda’s discovered oil, and Fennessy knew that plans to drill would spell disaster for these endangered animals. His ambitious and dangerous mission was to relocate twenty giraffe from one side of the River Nile to the other, where it was hoped that these pioneering individuals would start a new population in a safer location.

As I watched the team of dedicated vets, rangers and scientists attempt to move one-ton animals whose kick could decapitate a man, I was filled with such admiration and respect. It is all very commendable to donate money to charity, but these people were out in conflict areas risking their lives for giraffe. As the mission progressed, I got quite emotional, not just because the threats these beautiful animals face are so unnecessary and unjust, but because I was completely unaware. What little chance these animals have if even wildlife enthusiasts like me don’t know their situation.

It wasn’t just the numbers of giraffe that I was unaware of; so much of their behaviour remains unseen to even experts like Fennessy who have studied them for a vast proportion of their lives. By the Hoanib River in northwest Namibia, he took a sensitive camera out to film giraffe at night. As he watched, a giraffe curled up on the exposed ground and fell asleep. It was something Fennessy had never witnessed before.

“In zoos they study it,” he explained, “Basically when their neck is down it’s REM sleep, so maybe these giraffe are dreaming. I’ve never seen that in the wild.”


The fact that we don’t know how wild giraffe sleep says a lot about how overlooked they are. It seems there is the assumption that because we don’t hear about a particular animal as much, it must be doing fine. However, in the case of the giraffe this couldn’t be further from the truth. So why do we know so little about these animals? Perhaps it is because they are only listed as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. An article published two years ago, at the time that this episode was first released, hopes that the work Fennessy is doing will help change the status of giraffe to “Endangered” or “Critically Endangered” and therefore encourage greater conservation efforts. Unfortunately, as 2018 draws to a close, the giraffe is still listed as “Vulnerable”. I can only hope that this change in status does come into effect to raise awareness of this silent and rapid extinction that is passing so many of us by, or soon it may be too late.


*Natural World “Giraffe: Africa’s Gentle Giants.” (2016) BBC. 23rd June.


The Avian Orchestra

There is an overwhelming quiet that comes with winter; a hush descends over the landscape that only adds to the bracing chill. As the season turns, the first few tentative voices break the spell of silence and before long there is an overpowering variety of diverse voices filling the air. While in the height of spring there can be hundreds of songs reverberating through the trees, there are a select few who can be heard again and again, reliable as the seasons. I took it upon myself to begin to tune in to this soundscape, a treat for the ears. Learning to birdlisten not only unlocks the ability to distinguish birds by song, but is also very useful as advanced warning for the reveal of the bird itself.

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Perhaps the most significant voice is that of the robin, mainly because he never left the scene when other, less hardy birds took off for warmer climes. Even through the dark, bitter winter the robin endures, his lone song often the only consistent sound during the colder months. In spring males and females pair up and defend their breeding territory, often the first to start singing and the last to finish.

The robin’s song is a delightful melody; a high, twittering burble heard from all around. Although varied in its range and tempo, the robin’s voice is almost unmistakable – high, thin and soft but still richly diverse. Hear the robin and he won’t be far away, perching in plain sight and puffing up his red breast as he fills it with air. He is a proud bird, often chasing other robins from his patch, but with a voice as pretty as his, who can blame him?


Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

Another commonly heard voice belongs to a rowdy bird that makes up for small size by belting out a piercing song for everyone to hear. The wren can often be seen speeding bullet-like through knee-high bushes. The wren sings like it’s scolding somebody; a furious round of high, loud chirrups with a distinctive trill at the end of some phrases that sounds like a miniscule machine gun. If you hear a very loud song wait for the trill, as it will inevitably come sooner or later and you’ll know you have your wren. Scan the lower branches and before long a stout brown bird holding its tail up like a stiff flag will appear, giving you a fierce reprimanding for something or other.

Great Tit (Parus major)

If robins and wrens are violins in the avian orchestra, the great tit is percussion; not quite as dazzling but just as important. In early spring, a two-toned call can be heard among the other singers, with emphasis on the first syllable. I like to think of it as the sound of a saw – effort on the forward stroke, then quieter on the draw back. After a few strokes of the squeaky saw there is a pause, and then the great tit sings it again, very resiliently as if rousing the troops to join in.

The great tit has other songs in its repertoire, including a “churr” call that reminds me of the chatter of a magpie, but a little faster and far gentler. This is the great tit’s alarm call, a sign of agitation that indicates something has disturbed it.


Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus)

With a lot of birdsong, it can help to adopt a Morse code approach when it comes to deciphering the rhythms of some particular species. Take the blue tit. A common little bird with splashes of blue, green, yellow and white with a fetching black goatee. The blue tit’s song is similar in tone to the great tit but gentler. Among its quite varied repertoire is a particularly distinctive melody, consisting of two clearly separated notes followed by two or three much faster ones. In dots and dashes it would look something like this:

– – . . .

Imagine, perhaps, that the bird is saying “I’m. A. Pretty Bird”, putting particular emphasis on the first two words.


If you like this, have a read of this post and find out where my inspiration to start birdlistening began.