Thousands of years ago, the giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis)--whose exotic appearance led the ancients to speculate it was an unnatural cross between a camel and a leopard--was common throughout all of Africa, Southern Europe, and India, but later became restricted to Africa. As recently as 800 years ago, giraffe disappeared from North Africa as a result of creeping desertification and loss of woodlands. The ranges of giraffe populations have contracted even further during the past half-century due to agricultural land conversion, poaching, deforestation, and drought, with only the substantial populations remaining in southern and eastern Africa.
Giraffe are highly visible indicators of the health of African savanna ecosystems. As obligate browsers--meaning they are specialized to feed upon the leaves of woody vegetation--they are dependent upon the savanna's shrubs and trees, particularly Acacia species. Unfortunately, little is known about the giraffe in the wild and how its survival and reproductive rates respond to predation, disease, changing land use, climate change, and poaching.