Q: Are giraffes endangered?
A: Scientifically, yes. Legally, not yet.
Giraffes are in serious trouble. The population overall has declined 40 percent in 30 years, and there are now approximately 68,000 left in the wild. The remaining herds are fragmented and face a multitude of threats, from habitat loss to poaching.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the gold standard for assessing endangerment, has found that giraffes are “vulnerable,” meaning they face a “high risk” of extinction in the wild. And for some of the nine subspecies, this risk is imminent. For example, the Kordofan giraffe has lost 90 percent of its population since the late 1980s and is down to just 2,000 individuals in the wild. Similarly, the Nubian giraffe population is down 98 percent and lives only on protected lands in Kenya. According to the IUCN, both subspecies are “critically endangered,” which means they face an “extremely high risk” of extinction in the wild.
Why are giraffes endangered?
Of the threats facing the planet’s tallest mammals, habitat loss is one of the gravest. Giraffes used to range continuously through much of the African savanna, but they now live in a handful of communities scattered in clumps across the continent. In some countries, like Mali, the giraffe has disappeared completely. In Niger, where many giraffes have been struck by cars, the population is so small and isolated that conservation officials have taken the drastic step of transporting some of the animals to a safer space.
A primary contributor to the giraffes’ loss of habitat is conversion of woodlands into farms and ranches. Charcoal is another challenge: Africa’s charcoal industry is booming, with many Africans making their living harvesting trees and burning the wood to form the lumpy black fuel. While this cottage industry is a boon to many low-income workers, it’s a problem for giraffes, who rely on those trees for sustenance.
Civil wars are a further challenge. Sudan, which was home to some 13,000 giraffes in the early 1980s, now shelters a population numbering only in the hundreds; its war has increased wildlife trafficking and poaching. In the face of ever-growing pressure on their livelihoods, some Sudanese have also turned to giraffe bushmeat as a means of survival.
Giraffes are also threatened by the proliferation of disease, including a lesion-inducing skin disease that is widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as inbreeding (a result of populations’ inability to intermix due to habitat fragmentation) and the increased frequency and magnitude of droughts associated with climate change.
Finally, the robust international trade in giraffes and their parts—a trade in which the United States plays a significant role—is a major factor in the species’ decline. At any given moment, even a modestly savvy internet shopper can find thousands of products made from giraffe parts online. One of the biggest sellers is giraffe bone, which has become a replacement for elephant ivory in knife and gun handles. Giraffe-hide rugs and clothing are also common, as are taxidermied body parts.
What protections do they have under U.S. law?
Trade in giraffe parts is both legal and largely untracked in the United States because the government doesn’t currently recognize the species as endangered. Yet as Elly Pepper, deputy director of NRDC’s wildlife trade program, notes, “giraffes clearly qualify under the Endangered Species Act” (ESA). That law covers any species that is “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”
While giraffes don’t live in the wild in the United States, Pepper adds that “there are steps the government must take under the terms of U.S. law to protect them.” It’s important to acknowledge the iconic mammals are a favorite trophy target of hunters traveling to Africa; U.S. hunters imported 3,744 dead giraffes between 2006 and 2015. Given that fact, plus the alarmingly vigorous trade in giraffe parts in the United States, endangered status would trigger several important protections for the species.
In 2017, a coalition of conservation groups (including NRDC) petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which implements the ESA, to recognize giraffes as endangered. The agency was required by law to respond within 90 days. Instead it did nothing. Then it did nada. Then it did zilch. And finally it did bupkis. So, a year and a half later, the coalition sued. Rather than facing the wrath of a federal judge, FWS issued a finding in April 2019 that the endangerment listing “may be warranted.” That gave the agency nine additional months to decide whether the listing is, in fact, warranted.
It’s important that U.S. authorities get moving. “Giraffes are undergoing a silent extinction, having declined 40 percent over the past 30 years, though few seem to know this,” Pepper says. “There are fewer giraffes left on this planet than African elephants.”
What about international protections?
Recognition of their plight by the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) would also go a long way toward helping to save giraffes. When CITES confers conservation status on a species, it restricts the international trade in that creature. Currently the members of the convention are mulling over a proposal to list the species, brought forth by the giraffe range states of the Central African Republic, Chad, Kenya, Mali, Niger, and Senegal. Their proposal would ensure that all traded giraffe parts were legally acquired and not taken from poached giraffes. The proposal would also enable authorities to collect international trade data for giraffes that would justify greater protections by both the members of CITES and other scientific and governmental bodies in the future.
How would endangered status help giraffes?
The biggest effect of giraffes’ listing under the ESA would be a severe curtailing of importation and trade within the country. There are situations in which trade in giraffe parts might still be permitted, such as for use in research, education, and activities to help propagate the species. And an endangered listing would not altogether cancel out the struggle that federal authorities face in working with legal provisions that allow the importation of endangered species parts that are at least 100 years old. (It can be exceedingly difficult for a customs official to determine the age of a piece of elephant ivory or giraffe bone.)
Still, putting giraffes on the endangered species list would go a long way to help them. In addition to stopping the widespread trade in giraffe parts, it would direct funding to giraffe conservation and require U.S. government agencies to coordinate their activities to ensure that no federal action further imperils the species.
An ESA listing would also shine a much needed spotlight on the plight of giraffes, a development that is less concrete but no less important than specific regulatory measures.
“We have a huge awareness problem,” Pepper says. “These important steps will vastly increase public consciousness of the plight of giraffes.”
What can you do to help giraffes?
Never, ever buy giraffe products. Support organizations, like NRDC, that are fighting to save giraffes, as well as on-the-ground organizations like the Giraffe Conservation Fund. And contact your representatives in Congress to let them know that you are concerned about the silent extinction crisis facing giraffes. Members of Congress have a direct line of communication with decision makers at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who have the power to grant protection to giraffes. Calls from their constituents will encourage them to pick up their own phones to help save these majestic animals.
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