The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service took a major step toward protecting giraffes under the Endangered Species Act on Thursday, saying their protection by the law may be warranted after conservation groups petitioned for their inclusion.
Giraffes, which inhabit numerous countries across Africa, have seen their population steadily decrease and are considered “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Just over 97,000 giraffes remained in the wild in 2016, and their population has suffered a decline of 36 to 40 percent from 1985, the IUCN estimates.
“The Service finds that the petition to list the giraffe presented substantial information on potential threats associated with development, agriculture and mining,” the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said in a release.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, Humane Society of the United States/Humane Society International and International Fund for Animal Welfare have fought for the giraffe’s protection for two years, beginning with a petition to the agency in April 2017. When the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service passed its stated 90-day review period to consider the petition, three of the organizations filed a lawsuit in December to prod the agency to make a decision.
Thursday’s decision means that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will conduct its own review, which can take up to 12 months, to assess whether giraffes merit inclusion on the list. That review is followed by a public-comment period, after which the agency announces whether the species will be covered under the Endangered Species Act.
The conservation groups’ 2017 petition said that giraffes were under threat from legal and illegal hunting, as well as loss of habitat because of human encroachment.
“We love these animals, and they’ve been undergoing a silent extinction without the public being aware of it,” said Tanya Sanerib, international legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
U.S. trade plays a significant threat to the species. Between 2006 and 2015, 39,516 giraffe specimens, including dead and live animals, as well as their parts or derivatives, were imported into the United States, according to the 2017 petition. That includes 21,402 bone carvings, 3,008 skin pieces and 3,744 hunting trophies. The conservation groups arrived at that number using the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s data on wildlife products and a review of online sales of giraffe products.
As it stands, giraffe parts are subject to virtually no restrictions by the United States, said Adam Peyman, programs and operations manager at Humane Society International.
“The bar is at the ground. You can import whatever products you want,” he said.
If giraffes are ultimately protected by the Endangered Species Act, Peyman explained, anyone who wishes to import giraffes or their parts, “would need to meet a much higher bar, which is that this product would somehow be contributing to the conservation of the species.”