Poaching and habitat loss due to spreading human populations have caused giraffe numbers in Africa to decline drastically, experts say.

Much of the decline of the long-legged and long-necked but graceful animals has gone unnoticed, says Dr. Julian Fennessy, Executive Director of the Namibian-based Giraffe Conservation Research.

"It's a silent extinction," he says, only becoming evident as a comprehensive assessment of giraffes being prepared for release next year shows their numbers have dropped more than 40 percent during the last 15 years.

"The numbers have gone down from 140,000 to fewer than 80,000 today," Fennessy says of the world's tallest animal that lives in 21 countries in Africa in national parks and on communal and private lands.

Two of the creature's nine subspecies have been designated "endangered" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and placed on the organization's Red List.

The increase in the proportion of land used for agriculture by humans has led to "habitat loss and fragmentation," Fennessy says.

Poaching and hunting of the animals has also increased, driven by a belief in some countries, including Tanzania, that eating certain parts of a giraffe can cure HIV-AIDS.

Giraffe hides are also widely used in clothing such as hats and shoes, and also in belts and bats, according to Zoe Muller of the Rothschild Giraffe Project.

Less than 700 of the Rothschild's giraffe subspecies are dispersed between Kenya and Uganda, wildlife experts say.

The dwindling of giraffe numbers has not had the impact in the public mind as has the loss of other species such as rhinos or elephants, and experts say that may be because elephants have such a presence in the public consciousness that we think they're more abundant than the truly are.

"Giraffes are everywhere," says David O'Connor, research coordinator with the San Diego Zoo's Institute for Conservation Research. "Look at kids' books, which are full of giraffes. They're always in zoo collections. They're easily visible, so you don't think we have to worry about them."

Even scientists admit they haven't given as much attention to giraffes as they have to other African species until the last 5 years or so.

"We're learning a lot more about their ecology but what we know is still way behind what we know about other species," O'Connor says.

There are some bright spots in the giraffe situation, Fennessy admits.

In Niger, the only home of the West African giraffe subspecies, numbers have rebounded from 50 animals in the 1990s to around 400 today.

"That's because the Niger government started to put policies in place to really protect giraffes and backed them up with good governance," Fennessy says. "You can put policies in place but unless you have solid governance and the support of the people, none of that will work."

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