Wednesday, 12 October 2011

"Least Concern"

Today's Featured Picture over at Wikipedia shows a giraffe grazing, and discusses adaptations for consuming spiky plants. Not knowing an awful lot about giraffes, but wondering how they were doing extinction-wise, I moseyed on over to the article on them and was duly reassured that they are classified by the IUCN as "Least Concern". However, sticking around to read up on "the tallest of all extant land-living animal species", I discovered that, across the entirety of Africa, there are fewer giraffes (of all species combined) than there are people living in Southampton. In fact, given the uncertainties involved in counting them, there could be considerably fewer.

All of which got me thinking about how the classification of "Least Concern" seems, at best, pretty relative (i.e. of least concern compared to most other species), and may give an overly rosy view of their status to skim-readers such as (usually) myself. I can't establish from Wikipedia how many giraffes were roaming Africa, say, 10,000 years ago, but I'd be surprised if it wasn't an order of magnitude more (for loose comparison, I did discover that there were ~300,000 African Bush Elephants when I was born, but there are only 10,000 now). That said, and knowing next to nothing about it, I would imagine that population viability is probably pretty good at the ~100,000 level (hence, presumably, "Least Concern").

Leaving that genetic aspect aside, given that land-use changes (i.e. more for humans, less for everything else) show no sign of altering direction at any point in the foreseeable (and not-so-foreseeable) future, I seriously doubt that the current giraffe population level is even faintly secure. To be fair, the term "Least Concern" is accurate: relative to many other species, giraffes are not immediately on their way out so, yes, we should be less concerned about them. But given this low population plus likely future change, and given that humans (7,000,000,000 and counting) are also formally classified as "Least Concern", it doesn't strike me as a helpful categorisation.

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