The iconic giraffe, one of the world’s most recognisable animals and the tallest land mammal, has been moved from ‘least concern’ to ‘vulnerable’ in the newly released International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

Widespread across southern and eastern Africa, with smaller isolated populations in west and central Africa, new population surveys estimate an overall 36-40 per cent decline in the giraffe population from approximately 151,702-163,452 in 1985 to 97,562 in 2015, IUCN said in a press release.

Of the nine currently recognised subspecies of giraffe, five have decreasing populations, whilst three are increasing and one is stable. This updated assessment of giraffe as a species was undertaken by the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Giraffe & Okapi Specialist Group (GOSG), hosted by Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) and Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

“Whilst giraffe are commonly seen on safari, in the media and in zoos, people — including conservationists — are unaware that these majestic animals are undergoing a silent extinction,” said Julian Fennessy, co-chair of the IUCN SSC GOSG, and Director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF).

“With a decline of almost 40% in the last three decades alone, the world’s tallest animal is under severe pressure in some of its core ranges across East, Central and West Africa. As one of the world’s most iconic animals, it is timely that we stick our necks out for giraffe before it is too late.”

Recent genetic-based research by GCF, Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Change Research Centre and other partners, suggests that there are four distinct species of giraffe instead of only one, but IUCN currently only recognises giraffe as one species.

Should the new genetic findings be confirmed and become widely accepted, this would like result in three of the four giraffe species being listed as under considerable threat on the IUCN Red List.

Human population growth poses the largest threat to giraffes in Africa. Habitat loss and fragmentation, habitat changes through expanding agriculture and mining, illegal hunting, increasing human-wildlife conflict, as well as civil unrest, are all factors that are pushing some giraffe closer to extinction.

GCF and its partners have this year supported and collaborated on many critical giraffe conservation initiatives including Operation Twiga, a Uganda Wildlife Authority effort to translocate and establish new ranges for the endangered Rothschild’s giraffe in Uganda.

Other initiatives include the development of an Africa-wide Framework Strategy for giraffe conservation and the ongoing development of National Giraffe Conservation Country Profiles for all giraffe range states, which have provided an invaluable baseline for the development of this new IUCN Red Listing.