Years after international watchdogs began warning that giraffes are sliding toward a silent extinction, the Trump administration is taking the first tentative steps toward protecting the world's tallest land animal under the Endangered Species Act.
The move, which advocates say is long overdue, came after legal pressure from environmental groups.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday that its initial review has determined there is "substantial information that listing may be warranted" for giraffes. The finding, to be published in the Federal Register, will begin a more in-depth review and public comment process that could lead to import restrictions on hunting trophies and body parts from giraffes, including hides and bones.
The giraffe population in Africa has declined by about 40% in the past three decades, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
The group, which designates endangered species, added giraffes to its "Red List" in 2016. It determined that the species as a whole is "vulnerable" to extinction and classified two subspecies as "critically endangered."
There are now only about 68,000 mature giraffes left in the wild, a number falling each year. That's less than a quarter of the estimated number of remaining African elephants, which have been protected under U.S. law as a threatened species since 1978.
Biologists cite habitat loss, civil unrest, and poaching among the threats driving the decline.
A coalition of environmental and conservation groups petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service in early 2017 to protect giraffes under the Endangered Species Act. After the administration took no action for nearly two years, the groups sued in December.
"The United States cannot stand idly by and allow thousands of U.S. imports of giraffe parts every year without any regulation while these animals are on a path to extinction," said Anna Frostic, managing wildlife attorney for the Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society International. "It is time that the United States stands tall for giraffes and gives this at-risk species the protection that it urgently needs."
A spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment on Thursday.
Giraffes are often hunted for meat in the 21 African countries where they are still found. They are also increasingly targeted by wealthy trophy hunters as other big-game animals have become scarcer. More than 21,400 bone carvings, 3,000 skin pieces, and 3,700 hunting trophies were imported into the United States over the past decade.
President Donald Trump has decried big-game hunting as a "horror show," but his administration reversed Obama-era restrictions on the importation the hides, teeth, and bones of elephants and lions. The Associated Press reported last year that the International Wildlife Conservation Council, a 16-member federal advisory board created by then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, has many big game hunters on the panel.
They include Safari Club International President Paul Babaz, who following a presentation to the council about the dwindling numbers of giraffes, noted that they are even declining in countries where hunting them is illegal.
"It is obvious to me that a lack of hunting is a cause for the decline in giraffe numbers," Mr. Babaz said at the time.
Trophy hunters often help fund anti-poaching efforts through permit fees paid to cash-strapped African governments. But they also typically oppose stricter regulation on the importation of body parts from threatened wildlife, which could prevent them from being able to bring trophies from their overseas kills back home.
On Thursday, SCI said it would oppose adding giraffes to list of big-game animals protected under the Endangered Species Act.
"These measures would reduce U.S. hunters' willingness to pay top-dollar for giraffe hunts," the group said in a media release. "Without offering anything in return, an ESA listing could reduce the revenues and incentives currently being generated by hunting. That means reduced habitat protection, less funding for anti-poaching and fewer benefits for the rural people who live side-by-side with giraffes and other wildlife."
Environmental groups lauded Thursday's announcement as a positive development, but pledged to keep up the pressure on the administration to act.
"Giraffes capture our imaginations from childhood on, but many people don't realize how few are left in the wild," said Tanya Sanerib, international legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Instead of throwing these unique animals a lifeline under the Endangered Species Act, Trump officials are twiddling their thumbs. Trump will be to blame if future generations know giraffes only as toys and not the long-necked icons of Africa."
This story was reported by The Associated Press.