A Film Review by Sarah Chinn
Photos by Derek E. Lee, Wild Nature Institute
In 2016 filmmaker Ashley Scott Davidson of the boutique film production company Iniosante Inc. released a feature motion picture about giraffes. Great, everyone loves giraffes! Almost everyone knows what a giraffe is – from any number of popular media such as seeing Geoffrey the Giraffe of Toys R Us fame depictions, stuffed animals, commercials, Nat Geo magazines, Animal Planet specials, or their local zoo. Most kids, especially those with a TV, know it is the tallest land animal in the world, stereotyped by its incredibly long neck. However, almost no one – kids, parents, or adults know their conservation status or what threats they face in Africa. “Last of the Longnecks” is a film inspired by Davidson witnessing a rare birth event of captive twin giraffes in his home state of Texas. Once he realized the insane public interest in giraffes, Iniosante films planned to design a film about this charismatic species. After a bit of research, it was mind-blowing to realize that although the giraffe is much loved, there is a serious void in population knowledge, thus conservation.
It is not to say there are not scientists researching giraffes. In fact, there are quite a few and Wild Lens collaborates with one such research group, the Wild Nature Institute, and has even made an Eyes on Conservation short film about this group’s efforts in assessing population status of the Maasai giraffe in Tanzania (link to the film here). Rather, giraffes have until recently lived in the shadow of the iconic African elephants and rhinos, species that have been overexploited for ivory and horns. The African savannah is characterized by giraffes, the ecosystem is actually shaped by these longnecks by browsing on acacia, dispersing seeds and pollinating trees – so why haven’t media or politicians paid attention to what is happening to them?
“Last of the Longnecks” does a great job explaining some of the issues that giraffes face and why they exist. It enlists scientists in the U.S. and researchers on the ground in Africa, as well as advocates from local tribes and around the world. One of the most striking points, and one that is widely unrealized, is that there are 9 subspecies of giraffe. This means that not all the giraffes across southern and eastern Africa are the same – they are geographically and biologically distinct, most importantly meaning that they do not breed with each other, and thus each species must be considered separately in terms of conservation. Traditionally, all giraffe subspecies have been lumped together, meaning that population estimates counted them as one single species, thus at a population of 90,000 their future survival was not so dire. However, when scientists assess each of giraffes as distinct subspecies, 7 out of 9 have dramatically decreased in numbers of individuals. For example, the West African and Thornicroft’s giraffes have only 400 and 600 individuals remaining, respectively. That is far from a healthy and sustainable population. A few species have been dramatically increasing, but most are in a precipitous decline, ranging from 52%-85% decrease in numbers. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global authority of population status of all species and determines measures about how to conserve them, classified giraffes (all populations lumped in a single group) as a species of Least Concern. Although the IUCN still categorizes giraffes as a single species, it does recognize subspecies and that some are under more intense pressure than others and are most at risk. As of December 2016, the current IUCN status of giraffes is Vulnerable to extinction as the entire population (all 9 groups lumped together) has declined 40% in the past 30 years.
The “silent extinction” of giraffes can be blamed on habitat loss and fragmentation, illegal hunting and poaching, and disease. One scientist, Rudolfo Dirzo from Stanford University explains the potential catastrophe of defaunation: the extinction of all large vertebrates due to human-related processes. With this mass extinction, small mammals will overpopulate the globe and the extreme population surge of small rodents will also bring a huge influx of fleas, which drastically increases disease and its spread world-wide to other animals and especially humans (take for example the black plague in ancient Europe). Thus, giraffes are an important sentinel for the acacia woodland savannah ecosystem, but also for global health.
The film proceeds to explain that most giraffe knowledge is from zoo research. Some zoos and captive institutions are highlighted such as my hometown zoo, The Oakland Zoo and Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch that also depict their value. In recent times, captive settings for animals have taken a blow by the media and a majority of conservationists, however “Last of the Longnecks” presents some of these facilities as the basis of knowledge, conservation, and the first point of contact to the public to spark their interest in wildlife that they might not have the opportunity to see or learn about otherwise.
A majority of the film traces the efforts of a handful of conservation groups (scientists, researchers, advocates) from the South African species northward to other giraffe species. In South Africa the Cape giraffe population has dramatically increased, so what is different here in relation to other regions? It seems that their management strategy of controlled game hunting and essentially managing each individual by putting all giraffes into wildlife refuges is working. However, in other regions that is not logistically possible, or morally favored. In parts of Eastern Africa, giraffes are hunted for meat. It is difficult to discourage hunting when it is widely accepted by locals and the government, especially when it may be one of the only sources of protein. Kenya is sometimes considered the epicenter of giraffe evolution – it houses 3 giraffe species: Rothschild’s, Reticulated, and Maasai. However, Kenya is also home to 40 million people. To put that into perspective, there are about half that many people living in Texas, which is about the same size at Kenya. Giraffes are constantly competing with people for space, with a significant part of the savannah being converted into agricultural fields, competing for food with cattle and goats, and experiencing human-caused mortality from things like road accidents and electrocution by power lines. The biggest threat for all giraffes is humans. Consumption of giraffe meat is wide-ranging. For example, refugees with guns live in the same area as Reticulated giraffes, and the refugees are hungry. In other areas, giraffes are not necessarily poached for profit, but often poachers looking for elephants for the illegal ivory trade will set traps to catch giraffes because they are easy to snare thus an easy meal while in the bush.
The film offers ecotourism as a possible solution to giraffe conservation. If local communities are engaged in the ecotourism industry then they can make a profit. People travel across the world to see charismatic megafauna like giraffe making tourism the largest contributor to the GDP. If giraffes are protected then tourists will come and spend their money, thus fueling the local economy. The filmmaker depicts educating the local people (adults and children) about giraffe, hoping they will take pride in their local giant, and also learn that by protecting them they are protecting their own livelihoods. Unless communities benefit from good conservation, there is no incentive for the community to save giraffes or other species.
“Last of the Longnecks” finally puts giraffes in the spotlight. This movie tells a compelling story abouthow little is actually known about such an iconic animal, and how close they are to becoming extinct. Remember: extinction is permanent. We have the power to change ourselves and thus the environment. During the final credits, the filmmaker offers suggestions about how individuals can help save giraffes, make sure to keep the reel rolling to catch these! Hopefully this film encourages people throughout the world to consider their impact and to make the best choices for everyone and wildlife.
“We can save giraffes. If we all work together.”
Watch the trailer for the film here.
Stay tuned for film festival screenings, like the upcoming WCFF World Giraffe Day on June 21st, of Last of the Longnecks here!
Wednesday, June 21
World Giraffe Day
Special Screening; Last of the Longnecks
31740 Mulholland Highway
Malibu, CA 90265
Free admission | 21+ only
Tags: charismatic megafauna, conservation, defaunation, ecotourism, giraffes, hunting, iucn, Kenya, masaii giraffe, poaching, tanzania, wildlife, wildlife conservation, wildlife filmmaking, wildlife management