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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider listing giraffes as endangered species

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / 2018

    Squirt, the youngest of three giraffes, takes a break in the back of the Honolulu Zoo compound.

Federal wildlife officials said Thursday that they would officially consider listing the giraffe as an endangered species, a move long sought by conservationists alarmed by the African mammal’s precipitous decline and a growing domestic market for giraffe products.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Thursday that it had found “substantial information” that listing giraffes as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act “may be warranted.” The finding came more than two years after conservation groups petitioned the Trump administration for the protection, warning that the animals were in danger of extinction.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will now begin an in-depth review before making a final decision. The process could take years, conservationists said.

Designating giraffes as endangered or threatened would place restrictions on their import into the United States and make federal funding available for conservation efforts.

Conservationists also hope that a listing could elevate the giraffes’ plight, which they said was often overshadowed by higher-profile initiatives to protect lions, elephants and other distinctive animals.

“Tons of money is poured into conservation projects for these species,” said Adam Peyman, manager of wildlife programs and operations for the Humane Society International, one of the groups that filed the petition. “Giraffes just don’t enjoy that.”

Per federal regulations, the wildlife service’s response to the groups’ petition should have come within 90 days of the petition’s filing in April 2017. In December, more than a year after the petition was filed, the groups sued the wildlife service to compel a response. It is not clear what took the wildlife service so long, or whether the announcement Thursday was prompted by the lawsuit.

Peyman said the wildlife service routinely missed deadlines, though the delay on the giraffe petition was the longest he had ever seen.

Federal wildlife officials did not respond to further requests for comment Friday.

The agency’s finding appeared to be a distinctly pro-conservation move by an administration that has repeatedly rolled back environmental protections. The wildlife service moved last year to allow some hunters to import big-game trophies, including elephant tusks and lion hides, overturning an Obama-era ban.

Tanya Sanerib, international legal director and senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the agency’s decision to conduct the in-depth review on giraffes was akin to clearing a “tiny little hurdle.” The bigger obstacle, she said, would be actually listing giraffes as endangered or threatened.

“While it’s shocking that the Trump administration made a possible finding for wildlife, it would have been more astonishing to say giraffes don’t pass that first hurdle,” she said.

Peyman said it was not clear whether the agency would ultimately decide to protect giraffes. It could say that giraffes do not deserve protections under the Endangered Species Act, or that the federal government’s limited resources should be focused on other species.

Conservationists say there is a strong argument for listing giraffes under the Endangered Species Act.

The population of giraffes, the tallest land animals on the planet, has declined about 40 percent in the last 30 years, according to the groups’ petition. They estimate the population today is close to 97,000.

Among the biggest threats to giraffes is habitat loss driven by the expansion of cities, agriculture and timber harvest. Poaching and legal hunting have also contributed to the decline.

In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources declared the giraffe “vulnerable to extinction.”

The market for products derived from giraffes has also increased in the United States. According to a report released last year by the Humane Society of the United States, more than 40,000 giraffe parts were imported from 2006 to 2015 to be made into expensive pillows, boots, knife handles, Bible covers and other trinkets.

Peyman acknowledged, however, that legal hunting had a relatively small impact on giraffe populations when compared with habitat loss or poaching. He said it was not clear how much of the giraffe products’ import comes from poaching.

“What we want to do is raise that bar, make it so that giraffes aren’t threatened by trade in addition to the other threats they are facing,” he said.

Some, however, say that listing the giraffes under the Endangered Species Act could have an adverse impact on their population.

The Safari Club International, a pro-hunting group, said that the potential measures could “would reduce U.S. hunters’ willingness to pay top dollar for giraffe hunts,” money that could in turn be used to buy land to increase giraffes’ habitat or fund anti-poaching programs.

“Many species, including giraffes, benefit from this investment in conservation,” the group said in a statement. “Without offering anything in return, an ESA listing could reduce the revenues and incentives currently being generated by hunting.”

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