GENEVA, Switzerland— Parties to an international wildlife treaty today agreed to regulate trade in giraffes, throwing the imperiled animals a lifeline as their populations plummet. A coalition of African nations proposed the protections, which require permits and tracking of exports in live and dead giraffes and their parts.
The proposal was voted on during this week’s meeting for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), with 21 countries opposed, 106 countries in favor and seven countries abstaining. Separately, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether to protect giraffes under the Endangered Species Act.
“This is wonderful news for giraffes, and we’re grateful for the international support for everyone’s favorite long-necked mammal,” said Tanya Sanerib, international legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “With fewer giraffes than elephants in Africa, it was a no-brainer to simply regulate giraffe exports. But it’s still urgent for the Trump administration to protect these imperiled animals under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.”
Giraffes are cherished around the world, but few know they are disappearing — slipping towards what scientists call a “silent extinction.” Overall giraffe populations dropped by up to 40 percent between 1985 and 2015. With only around 97,000 remaining, there are fewer giraffes than elephants in the wild today.
Habitat loss, poaching and illegal hunting are the top threats to giraffes, which have become a common species in the wildlife trade. The United States is the world’s largest importer of wildlife, and between 2006 and 2015, nearly 40,000 giraffe specimens were imported into the country. U.S. giraffe imports included thousands of bones and skin pieces — and an average of at least one hunting trophy every day.
In May scientists with the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) issued assessments predicting the loss of a million species in the next few decades if drastic changes are not made. The assessments identified overexploitation — including trade — as the second greatest driver of species extinction.
“The giraffe decision is great news for this species,” said Sanerib. “But after the grim warning from UN scientists in May, it’s clear that CITES has its work cut out for it to stem the extinction crisis. Wildlife overexploitation, including by trade, was identified as the second greatest driver of species’ extinction. CITES parties have to focus and fund conservation, including for species like giraffes, if they’re to have a future.”
The Central African Republic, Chad, Kenya, Mali, Niger and Senegal put forward the proposed trade protections, and it was supported by all 32 African nation members of the African Elephant Coalition. While today’s decision still requires a final vote in coming days, the decision is unlikely to change.
With six-foot-long necks, giraffes are the tallest land animals on Earth. Their unique patterns, which are inherited from their mothers, provide camouflage from predators and also help giraffes identify kin. People long thought giraffes were strictly silent beings or only produce sounds inaudible to humans’ ear, but scientists recently discovered that giraffes actually hum at night — which may be a form of communication.
There are nine subspecies of giraffe. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has listed the entire species as vulnerable to extinction, but two subspecies (Masai and reticulated) are listed as endangered and two others (Nubian and Kordofan) as critically endangered.