The way we study giraffes is exhilarating and stressful

I'll devour anything that Ed Yong writes at The Atlantic, but his April 2020 article "How To Tackle A Giraffe" hasn't left my head since I first read it.

Giraffe populations have decreased by 30 percent over the past three decades. Only 111,000 individuals remain. There are at least four African elephants for every giraffe. To safeguard a future for giraffes, researchers need basic information about how far they roam. GPS trackers can offer answers, but to get a tracker on a giraffe, one must first take it down.

This is harder than it sounds, and it sounds hard. Etorphine—an opioid about 1,000 times more potent than morphine—is the preferred anesthetizing agent, but some giraffes resist doses that would knock out an elephant. And unlike elephants, many of them respond by breaking into a run. Also, etorphine depresses a giraffe's breathing, reduces its heart rate, and increases its blood pressure. The drug is tolerable in the short term, but after only 15 minutes, it can cause problems for an animal whose heart must pump blood up a seven-foot neck. A darted giraffe must be tripped as quickly as possible. Once it's horizontal and restrained, the team can immediately reverse the etorphine with a second drug, while attaching a tracker.

On the surface, the idea of tackling a giraffe sounds absurd (albeit entertaining). But Yong deftly illustrates the fascinating complications that conservationists have to tackle with. It's not just that people are poaching giraffes—it's that human population growths have left them with fewer resources to thrive. They've also been famously hard to study, given their solitary nature. So the thrilling balance of setting the perfect tranquilizing strength to knock one out for just long enough to slap a tag on its ankle and get the hell out of its way is only one small piece of a larger conservation puzzle.

The Last Giraffes on Earth [Ed Yong / The Atlantic]

Image: Public Domain via Pixio