It was a late July evening, the road was dark, and the driver of a van overloaded with people and wares careened around a turn in the highway through this village, about 60 miles east of Niger's capital, Niamey. Although the driver slammed on the brakes, it was too late: He drove right into a juvenile male giraffe who was grazing on the tasty plants that grow near the road during the rainy season. It was the second one-ton roadkill here in two months.
The only giraffes left in West Africa and the only giraffes in the world that still live in their natural habitat and not in nature preserves, Niger's Giraffa camelopardalis peralta have been on the brink of extinction for years. With no major predators and a population in good health, the giraffes are menaced more by human activity – from road accidents to habitat clearing to poaching – than anything else. Indeed, the giraffes and the humans from the Kollo region – mostly farmers trying to eke out a living from harsh, dry earth – live in an uneasy harmony.
Villagers butchered the carcass and divvied up the meat so fast, recalls Jean-Patrick Suraud, a French ecologist who is researching West Africa's giraffes, that when he arrived on the scene just a few hours later there was nothing but a stain left on the road.
The giraffe, a pouty-lipped animal with a long supple black tongue (the better to eat thorny acacia plants with, my dear), and a brain the size of an orange, has a unique set of spots – like a human fingerprint – that allows researchers to recognize them. So Mr. Suraud and his colleagues were able to identify the individual that had been killed by piecing together bits of hide assembled from villagers who hadn't cooked it yet.
The last herd of giraffes in West Africa, Giraffa camelopardalis peralta, have not exactly put Niger on the map, but they have helped bring everything from ecotourism to European Community grants to the country. There are only about 150 of this distinct species left in all of West Africa. (Suraud's group counted 144 last year but, in the spirit of optimism, the scientific community rounds up). While at the end of the 19th century, giraffes ranged through Senegal, Gambia, Mauritania, Mali, and Nigeria, their numbers have dwindled rapidly in modern times. Hundreds of giraffes roamed in Niger at the beginning of the 1970s, but by 1996, the population reached an all-time low of 50.
Outsiders such as international environmental groups and the European Community insist that the giraffe is a national treasure. With the support of government organizations, protective measures have been put into place to stop the once-rampant poaching. At the same time, life for villagers outside the capital of Niamey is difficult.
"The [human] population is starving," explains Omer Dovi, an energetic man with an easy smile and keen eyes who is the operations manager of the Association to Save the Giraffes of Niger (ASGN), a local nongovernmental organization that promotes ecotourism and development. "There's not that much to eat in the village so when a giraffe is hit, the villagers don't let anything go to waste."
Among complaints the villagers have about the giraffes is that they eat their crops, most notably beans and mangoes, and damage their fields.
"The truth is, a silent majority of villagers don't see what use the giraffes are," argues Boreima Amadou, a professor of geography at University of Abdou Moumouni, who studies the human populations in contact with the giraffe. "It is considered a 'useless animal'.... A useful animal is one that can be eaten, hunted, or worked. The giraffe doesn't fulfill any of these criteria."
These complaints have gone so far that rumors have spread that the giraffes are changing their diet and eating millet and sorghum, the principal crops of the region. "That's absolute nonsense," says Isabelle Ciofolo, a French ethologist who studied Nigerien giraffes for 12 years. "The giraffe has never eaten millet and never will.... Crop damage, when it happens, is minimal."
It's time to see the tallest land mammal up close, so Mr. Dovi, Ms. Ciofolo, and I go on a bone-jarring ride through the bush. Two guides sit on a makeshift platform on top of the 4x4, scanning the landscape for giraffes.
Though it is easily 90 degrees F., the guides both wear parkas, and one has a blue woolen toque pulled over his ears. He uses a long stick to bang on the windshield to direct the driver.
The dry season has started in Niger and the giraffes are nowhere to be seen. In fact, this is the second time in a week that I've come looking for them. This morning, working on a tip from a guide that a large group of giraffes had been seen the night before, we spend more than two hours searching for the giraffes in the alternating bands of thorny scrub and sand known as tiger bush.
As we go jostling through the bush, several raggedly clad village children run after the car. One flags us down and gestures into the bush where he claims a giraffe has recently passed. As we veer in the direction indicated he cries, "Cadeau, Monsieur, cadeau!" asking to be given a gift for his help.
We drive for more than half an hour in the direction he sends us before realizing that he just wanted a tip. According to the latest UN reports, Niger has the dubious distinction of being the least developed country in the world. It's not surprising that villagers, preoccupied with basic necessities, take a more practical approach to the giraffes than wildlife activists. We leave the tiger bush and head into the savannah.
"There they are!" Dovi shouts an hour later. Only one stands out, but as we approach, five trees turn out to be camouflaged giraffes, foraging on the tasty tops of acacia trees that ring the bush.
Living alongside villagers and used to tourists, the giraffes look wary, but they don't bolt when approached. We see an enormous male giraffe, two females, and two nursing calves that Dovi says are only a few weeks old. One is so young that it hasn't yet been identified, and the guides ask me to take pictures of it for their record book.
The giraffes gambol through the dried millet fields, stretching their long necks to the foliage or around their own backs to gawk back at us. Their beauty and height are almost unbelievable. Though we watch them for hours, it is hard to leave.
"The villagers know it's better for the economy to save the giraffe than to kill it," says Saley Soumana who has been working here as a guide since 1998. "When I saw the giraffe lying down dead it made me very sad," he says of last July's roadkill. "The giraffe is my animal. There's even one that was named for me."
Amina, a woman from a village in the giraffes' range is one of many who have benefited from the ASGN awareness campaign that includes building wells and organizing microlending projects to encourage villagers to appreciate the giraffes. Speaking in Zarma, she explains that she received a grant to buy goats and sheep as part of a microfinance project.
"Giraffes have brought happiness to us here," she says. But, even so, she notes with a laugh: "I've never eaten giraffe. But if I had the chance, I would try it."