Giraffes in DRC
The the rare giraffes that live in Garamba, in northeastern DRC, are critically endangeredREUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

A rare type of giraffe that only lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) could soon be extinct after conservationists estimated that only 38 animals are struggling to repopulate a reserve the size of Northern Ireland. Scientists who have studied the giraffe in the African nation believe that the Congolese Giraffe, that live in Garamba, in northeastern DRC, are a sub-species of the Kordofan giraffe.

Their presence was part of the reason that the national park was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1980. But since they were awarded the coveted status civil war has erupted in both the DRC and neighbouring Sudan.

Experts say there were 356 giraffes in 1993, but the population had plunged to 86 by 2007, after the civil war. And although DRC citizens do not ordinarily hunt giraffes for food, due to a belief that their meat can cause leprosy, village elders do use their hide and tails to make hats and fly-swats as a sign of wealth and importance.

The Garamba National Park, which is managed by the South African based company African Parks, was made famous as one of the last known refuges of the northern white rhino – only three of the rhinos now exist. And now another species is staring down the barrel of extinction as Aimé Balimbaki, the head of research and monitoring at Garamba National Park, says that just 34 adult giraffes survive split between two herds, with four young calves between them.

"At the moment the ratio is one male to 2.4 females, which is still sustainable," he said to The Times. "But if we have bad luck or if there is a serious menace — even if we lose just five giraffes — then the population may no longer be viable."

Balimbaki added that desperate refugees fleeing the fighting in South Sudan had sometimes killed the giraffes for food and that tribes in the newly-formed nation often use the hides as dowries for marriage. "If more refugees arrive, or if there are political problems here and people come into the park to destroy the giraffe then we will lose them completely," Balimbaki said.

Genetic research has unearthed astonishing clues about the DRC giraffe's heritage in recent years. Experts believe that they derive from a subspecies known as the Kordofan giraffe, which range across Chad, the Central African Republic and Cameroon.