They have one of the most instantly recognizable silhouettes on the planet. “They walk so gracefully that it looks like they are floating across the savanna,” says Michael Brown, an ecologist with the Namibia-based Giraffe Conservation Foundation, or GCF.

But our familiarity with these stilt-legged ruminants can sometimes give a false impression of their overall numbers, masking a “silent extinction”—so called because it receives little attention compared with the plight of elephants or rhinoceroses. In recent decades, however, rapidly expanding agriculture and human communities across Africa have destroyed or fragmented huge swaths of the intact savanna giraffes need to find the trees and bushes they eat, driving a 40 percent decline of the four giraffe species since 1985. Nubian giraffes, a critically endangered subspecies found in South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya, have lost an estimated 95 percent of their population. Today they’re down to perhaps 3,000 animals.

This dire situation recently led GCF to partner with African Parks, a conservation group that works with South Sudan’s government to manage neighboring Badingilo and Boma National Parks—both Nubian giraffe strongholds—to track, study and protect the animal.

But tracking giraffes presents a famously difficult design challenge. GPS collars typically go around the neck, but giraffe necks, which are six feet long, skinny up top and thick down below, aren’t made for collars; the devices slide down when the animal lowers its head, causing discomfort or risking losing the collar completely. Researchers have tried anklets, chest harnesses and even tags mounted to the bony, horn-like nubs on top of their heads, but nobody could keep a tracker attached and functioning for long, says Sara Ferguson, a GCF wildlife veterinarian.

In the last two years, however, technological advances have shrunk trackers to the size of a candy bar, small enough to strap onto the tip of the tail or an ear. The new tags are solar-powered, are less obtrusive and, with luck, should last a year or more. In April, Ferguson and others from African Parks traversed Badingilo and Boma by helicopter and attached trackers to 11 Nubian giraffes. The data they are collecting will help identify key habitats and favored routes within the parks’ combined 7.4 million acres of wetlands and savanna, potentially spurring their expansion and showing where extra patrols to limit bushmeat poaching or community education to encourage local buy-in for conservation can save giraffe lives. “We can’t conserve what we don’t understand,” says Julian Fennessy, co-founder and conservation director of GCF. “We need these data to protect this landscape before it’s too late.”

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This article is a selection from the January/February 2024 issue of Smithsonian magazine

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