By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
It’s been more than three years since we filed a petition asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to protect giraffes under the Endangered Species Act from trophy hunting and other imminent threats to their survival. During this time, the agency has responded once last year—following a lawsuit we filed—to agree with us that giraffes may qualify for such protection. But instead of taking further action, as the law requires it to do, it has gone back to sitting on its hands.
By failing to act on the petition, filed by the Humane Society International, the Humane Society of the United States, the Center for Biological Diversity and other partner organizations, the USFWS is in clear violation of the Endangered Species Act, our nation’s highest law protecting endangered and threatened animals. The law requires the agency to take action within one year after a petition for listing a species is filed.
Such inaction is also not acceptable from our government agency tasked with protecting wildlife and promoting international wildlife conservation. Giraffes, like elephants and rhinos, are in crisis. There are fewer than 98,000 of these animals left in the wild—down from 150,000 in 1985—including fewer than 69,000 mature individuals. And threats to their lives are only intensifying, including habitat destruction, hunting for illegal bushmeat and wildlife trafficking.
Our nation contributes to the problem by allowing the wildlife trade in the body parts of giraffes to continue. Between 2006 and 2015, U.S. trophy hunters imported 3,744 giraffe hunting trophies—on average, more than one per day—in addition to 21,402 giraffe bone carvings, 4,789 bones and 3,008 skin pieces imported into the country.
As an HSUS/HSI undercover investigation in 2018 found, giraffe parts are peddled at wholesale and retail stores around the country and online, usually as frivolous decorative items like pillows, boots, knife handles and Bible covers.
Global conservation leaders have taken steps to protect giraffes in recent years. Since 2018, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has reaffirmed that giraffes are “vulnerable” to extinction, and have classified two subspecies as “endangered” and two other subspecies, including one that has only 455 mature individuals remaining, as “critically endangered.” In 2019, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) gave giraffes important protections, though it does not require nations to ban the giraffe trade.
If we are to save giraffes from going extinct, it is crucial that nations like the United States crack down on this trade here. Listing giraffes as “endangered” under the ESA, as our petition requests, has the potential to make a real difference to the survival of this species. It would require the USFWS to make critical scientific findings in order to scrutinize imports and interstate sale of giraffe parts, and make additional conservation funding available.
Giraffes are rapidly disappearing from earth, with nearly 40 percent gone in just three decades. But the USFWS, which has the ability to stop American trophy hunters from accelerating this silent extinction, has made the unacceptable choice of remaining silent itself. We are putting the agency on notice today that we won’t relent on this issue until it stops pandering to special interest lobbies at such great cost to the world’s wildlife.
Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.