Science First Look

How this giraffe mom captivated the world

As giraffe populations dwindle, a live feed of a pregnant giraffe in Animal Adventure Park, a zoo in upstate New York, has enthralled viewers around the globe, perhaps even helping conservation efforts for the vulnerable animals. 

In the 2004 comedy Anchorman, the birth of a panda at the San Diego Zoo gives TV host Ron Burgundy the occasion to deliver a career-saving report.

That plot twist now seems a little less silly. As of Wednesday morning, nearly 100,000 live viewers were glued to YouTube’s Giraffe Cam, waiting for April, a 15-year-old giraffe at the Animal Adventure Park in Harpursville, N.Y., to deliver a calf.  

April has us on our toes! then our heels, then our toes, then our heels!”, the AAP wrote on its Facebook page Monday evening. Giraffes show few signs of labor so as not to alert predators – meaning that, since the AAP set up its live-stream last month to coincide with the approximate delivery date, viewers around the world have been tuning in regularly to avoid missing it.

Zoo births like these are a reliable hit with internet audiences; when the National Zoo’s Mei Xiang delivered a panda cub in 2013, its “panda cam” pulled in thousands of viewers. But beyond the cute factor, these events are good news for conservationists, and an opportunity to raise awareness about the plight of at-risk species.

“By bringing awareness,” of these animals, an AAP employee explained in a separate video, “we can bring conservation and preservation to giraffes in the wild.”

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature currently classifies giraffes as one speciesGiraffa camelopardalis – and lists them as “vulnerable,” with total populations having dropped from between 151,000 and 163,000 in 1985 to less than 98,000 in 2015.

But last September, The Christian Science Monitor’s Eva Botkin-Kowacki reported that biologists are revising their classification of the animals. Previously, they had recognized nine different physical types within the same species – similar to dog breeds – but now believe that they should be listed as separate species.

“As the four different species don't hybridize, the numbers are much more stark” than those listed for a single species, Ms. Botkin-Kowacki wrote. “A population of the West African giraffe in Niger, for example, is estimated to be made up of just about 400 individuals.”

Reticulated giraffes like April are faring the best of the nine giraffe types, with the IUCN reporting 36,000 to 47,750 animals left in the wild. The Saint Louis Zoo’s Reproductive Management Center says that captive-breeding programs could play an important role in preserving species like these for the future:

“Temporarily preventing breeding in some individuals while promoting breeding in others is fundamental to successful population management. When genetically valuable animals fail to reproduce, the population loses genetic diversity; likewise, unplanned births in non-recommended pairs undermine careful population planning.”

Some animal-rights activists disagree. Last week, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wrote on its website that the AAP’s video “ends in tragedy. That’s because another giraffe will be born into captivity, only to be denied virtually everything that’s natural and important to him or her so that people can gawk at the spectacle of having a giraffe in the U.S.”

Another viewer, meanwhile, convinced YouTube to temporarily pull the live stream on the grounds that it contained sexually explicit material, the Associated Press reported.

In a video posted on its Facebook page, the zoo promptly defended the live-stream as an “educational tool,” and insisted that it was on “the same team” as animal-rights activists.

The YouTube video has since been restored, allowing the worldwide calf-watch to continue.