NIGER &

The rainy season is now in full force in Niger, West Africa.

According to a Reuters news report, 20 people have been killed so far in traffic accidents due to the heavy rains. It's not just people who are at risk during this season. The rains in Niger mean that tasty vegetation springs up by the side of the only highway (a two-lane pitted road) that heads east from Niamey, the capital city. Attracted to this food source, many individuals from Niger's last herd of West African giraffes come to eat by the side of the road, putting themselves at risk of being hit by speeding drivers.

That's what happened last year in late July. The road was dark, and the driver of an overloaded van careened around a turn at top speed on the Kollo road, about 100 kilometers east of Niamey. The driver slammed on the brakes but it was too late: he crashed into a juvenile male giraffe, killing it instantly. It was the second one-ton road kill in two months.

"There was nothing but blood left on the road," remembers Jean-Patrick Suraud, a French ecologist who has been studying West Africa's last herd of giraffes for the past two years, who arrived on the scene a few hours later. "The giraffe had already been cut into pieces." The villagers distributed the meat and feasted on the dead giraffe.

The giraffe, a pouty-lipped animal with a long supple black tongue and the brain the size of an orange, has a unique set of spots""like a human fingerprint""that allows researchers to recognize them. Although local villagers had already divvied up the meat of the dead animal amongst themselves, Suraud and his colleagues were able to identify the individual that had been killed by piecing together bits of hide.

There are only some 150 giraffes, Giraffa camelopardalis peralta, left in West Africa (Suraud's group counted 144 last year but, in the spirit of optimism, the scientific community rounds up), and they have helped bring everything from ecotourism to European Community grants to Niger.

Outsiders insist that the giraffe is a national treasure and, with the support of government organizations, protective measures have been put into place to stop the once-rampant poaching that reached an all-time high in 1996 when 30 percent of the giraffe population was lost.

At the same time, the reality of the difficulty of life in the villages outside of Niamey means that villagers don't always appreciate the giraffes.

"The [human] population is starving," explains Omer Dovi, the operations manager of the Association to Save the Giraffes of Niger, a local non-profit organization that promotes ecotourism and development in the Kollo region. "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."

Villagers say the giraffes 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 in the Department of Geography at the University of Abdou Moumouni in Niamey who studies the human populations in contact with the giraffe. "It's 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' diet has changed and they now eat millet and sorghum, the principle crops of the region. "That's absolute nonsense," says Isabelle Ciofolo, a French ethologist and giraffe expert. "The giraffe has never eaten millet and never will Crop damage, when it happens, is minimal."

Living alongside villagers and used to tourists, the giraffes look wary but they don't bolt when approached by humans.

"Giraffes have brought happiness to us here," says a woman named Amina who's from Niamber&

233;, a village in the giraffes' range. Talking in Zarma through an interpreter, Amina explains she received a loan to buy goats and sheep as part of one of the ASGN's microfinance projects.

"I've never eaten giraffe," Amina laughs at the end of the interview, "but if I had the chance, I would try it."