Lions prey on young giraffes in conservation areas, researchers find
Giraffes are classed as vulnerable, with fewer than 98,000 in the wild – a drop of 40% in the past 30 years.
Researchers are calling for an urgent review into how populations of giraffes are managed in the wild when living alongside lions.
The giraffe population has declined by 40% in the past 30 years, with lions the primary predator to the world’s tallest mammals.
In a first, a study from the University of Bristol investigated the impact of the presence of lions on giraffe populations in the wild.
It found that the number of calves is likely to be reduced by up to 82% when lions are kept in the same conservation area as giraffes.
The work, published in the journal PLOS One, examined giraffe populations at two adjacent sites in Kenya – one with no lions and one with a high density of lions.
In areas with no lions, juvenile giraffes – less than a year old – made up 34% of the population, but made up only 6% in areas with lions.
Zoe Muller, a PhD student at the University of Bristol, warned of an “unrecoverable situation” if giraffe calves continued to decline.
“This research has significant practical implications,” she said.
“Giraffes are a threatened species, suffering ongoing decline in the wild, and this research highlights how managing giraffes alongside lions inside a conservation area – a common practice in Africa – has detrimental effects for giraffe populations.
“The continual loss of juveniles within a population due to lion predation may lead to an unrecoverable situation where the population crashes, since population growth and sustainability rely on enough calves surviving until they are sexually mature.”
She called for an “urgent reassessment” of how populations of giraffes are managed in the wild, given their “severe and ongoing decline”.
Giraffes are listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
There were approximately 151,702 giraffes in the wild in 1985, with the number dropping to 97,562 by 2015.
Threats to the population include illegal hunting, habitat loss, conflict between humans and wildlife and civil unrest.
“It is thought that lions preferentially target giraffe calves in the wild, and there is anecdotal evidence of this, including observations of lions eating young giraffe carcasses and of lion claw marks on adult females, thought to be a result of them defending their calves,” Ms Muller said.
“However, no-one has ever investigated if this preference for hunting calves has an impact on the population as a whole.”
The research will now be replicated in other areas of Africa, to see if lions create the same effects in other giraffe populations.