On World Giraffe Day, Trump should protect the highly imperiled species

On World Giraffe Day, Trump should protect the highly imperiled species
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He seems surprisingly small in the photo — a dead animal in a crumpled heap behind the smirking hunter who shot him. But as the picture went viral on social media this month, that dead South African giraffe became a hugely potent symbol.

The American woman who gunned him down and posed triumphantly with his body was blasted by critics. She even drew ire from celebrities like actress Debra Messing and comedian Ricky Gervais, who mocked the hunter for her pride in using a high-powered rifle to bag a gentle animal carefully balancing a nine-foot neck on four spindly legs.

Somewhat lost in the controversy over this one giraffe is a truly troubling fact: His fate is a pretty common one. 

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Yes, it’s disturbing that this venerable, 19-year-old member of a highly imperiled species was shot and turned into pillow covers and a gun case.

But today, on World Giraffe Day, it’s important to note that the United States imports more than one giraffe hunting trophy a day, on average according to the Humane Society. And our online marketplaces are stuffed with items made with giraffe bones and skins. 

Shockingly, this flow of giraffe parts faces little scrutiny under U.S. law, even though giraffe populations have plummeted nearly 40 percent in recent decades. There are now fewer giraffes than elephants in Africa. But unlike elephants, giraffes aren’t protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The Trump administration can and should change that. But despite President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocratic senator rips Trump's 'let them fight' remarks: 'Enough is enough' Warren warns Facebook may help reelect Trump 'and profit off of it' Trump touts Turkey cease-fire: 'Sometimes you have to let them fight' MORE’s own strongly stated opposition to trophy hunting of African animals (he’s called it a “horror show”), his officials have dragged their feet on the urgent matter of safeguarding giraffes.

That’s why conservation and animal-protection groups are delivering a letter today to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that documents giraffes’ ongoing silent extinction. Our letter urges the agency to quickly propose protections for this rapidly declining species — a proposal that should have been made in 2018.

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Back in 2017, my organization and four other groups filed a petition to list giraffes under the Act. After the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to respond to the petition, we sued.

Under legal pressure, the Trump administration finally took the very first step in the listing process, releasing a preliminary finding in April that giraffes may qualify for protection. Now the Fish and Wildlife Service is finally undertaking a status review of the species. 

But giraffes don’t have much time. Last year, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature confirmed that giraffes were vulnerable to extinction — and also assessed two giraffe subspecies as being critically endangered, including one population that has suffered a 97 percent population decline in the past 35 years.

Down to around 97,000 surviving animals, Africa’s giraffes are gravely imperiled by habitat loss and fragmentation, civil unrest and overhunting, as well as the international trade in bone carvings, skins and trophies.

When it comes to the international trade in giraffe parts, the U.S. is heavily implicated. America imported more than 21,000 giraffe-bone carvings between 2006 and 2015. And earlier this month, a Humane Society researcher found almost 2,000 items made from giraffe parts — everything from pistol grips and thumb studs to rugs — for sale online during a 5-day research period.

We need to be part of the solution. Listing the animals under the Endangered Species Act would help regulate and curb the deadly trade in giraffe parts. It would also increase funding for conservation efforts in Africa and raise public awareness of the animals’ plight.

On this World Giraffe Day, it’s critical for the Trump administration to get serious about giving giraffes the protections they desperately need.

While a handful of Americans want to use dead giraffes as morbid props for photo ops, most of us want these gentle giants protected as a glorious part of our planet’s natural heritage. These majestic animals deserve to remain wild — not be turned into trophies and trinkets. 

Tanya Sanerib is the legal director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s international program.