Giraffes, whose populations in the wild have plummeted by 40 percent over the last three decades, may qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act, according to a finding announced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today. The agency’s announcement comes in response to a legal petition we submitted — and followed up with a lawsuit after the agency failed to respond — and it is a significant moment in the effort to prevent the extinction of this graceful animal who is a common target of U.S. trophy hunters.
The FWS now must decide whether such a listing is warranted, and that process will include in-depth, range-wide, scientific review of the species’ current status in the countries they are native to.
Giraffes are unique and beautiful animals, with their tall necks, distinctive patterning and long eyelashes. But giraffe conservation has been overlooked for decades and during this time the animals have suffered what some call a “silent extinction.” We are now at a point where there are fewer giraffes remaining in Africa than there are elephants. In fact, less than 100,000 individual giraffes and only a few hundred of some giraffe subspecies now remain in the wild.
The main causes for their drastic decline are habitat destruction and illegal hunting for bushmeat in the giraffes’ natural habitat. But the United States, the world’s largest importer of wildlife products, has also played a significant role, by indulging trophy hunters and traffic in wildlife parts. More than one giraffe trophy is imported into the United States each day, according to trade data analyzed by Humane Society International for the petition. Over the past decade, nearly 40,000 giraffe parts and products were imported into the United States, including giraffe bone knife handles, giraffe skin pillows and more. There are no strong international regulations on the trade in giraffe parts, and giraffe bone has now taken on the status of a “new ivory.”
If we want to ensure a future for these wonderful animals in the wild, we need to act fast. While hunting giraffes is prohibited by national law in a few countries where they are found, the animals enjoy no international protections whatsoever. That’s why, in 2017, the HSUS and HSI, along with other allies, filed a petition to list giraffes under the Endangered Species Act in the United States. When the agency failed to respond to the petition after 19 months (it is legally required to respond within 90 days), we followed up with a lawsuit last year to force the agency to continue the listing process. To expose just how prevalent this trade is in the United States, the HSUS conducted an undercover investigation in 2018 that found giraffe products are widely available in stores and online across the country.
We continue to advocate for a proposal to list the giraffe under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) that would enact protections for the species at the international level, and we will push hard for it at an upcoming CITES meeting. In the meantime, the United States would do well to take the first step and position itself as a world leader on this issue. Were giraffes to receive ESA protections, the import, export and interstate sale of giraffe parts would be prohibited in the United States, unless such activity can be shown to enhance the survival of the species.
No one needs to kill a giraffe just for the thrill of it or for a knife handle or a pillow. We are excited that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has taken this critical first step to ensure the survival of this iconic species, and we will be there, every step of the way, fighting — with your help — to secure these protections.