There was a big win for giraffes at the 18th Conference of the Parties (CoP) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Geneva Thursday, as governments voted in favour of listing the species for the first time to protect it from unregulated trade.
Known as the ‘silent extinction’ giraffe numbers have plummeted dramatically – by up to 40% over the last 30 years – due to threats including international trade in their parts, as well as habitat loss, civil unrest and illegal hunting.
Matt Collis, IFAW Director, International Policy, and head of IFAW’s delegation at CITES, welcomed the decision, saying: “This is a big conservation win for giraffes. It was vital that this species was listed by CITES because up to now it has been impossible to say for certain how much of the giraffe’s huge population decline is due to trade.
“We do know it is a significant factor though as the only country that currently collects data on trade in giraffes, the United States, has reported almost 40,000 giraffe items traded in a decade. Listing on Appendix II is an important step in regulating trade in giraffes, preventing any illegal and unsustainable trade and helping to safeguard this iconic species for future generations.”
The Appendix II listing was proposed by Central African Republic, Chad, Kenya, Mali, Niger and Senegal. It was passed by 106 votes in support, with 21 votes against and seven abstentions. An earlier vote on limiting the protection to apply only to sub-species outside of Southern Africa failed to achieve the required number of votes to pass.
While the Appendix II listing, proposed by a number of African countries, will not stop all trade in giraffe parts, it will ensure this is not contributing to further population declines and provide global scale data that could not otherwise be obtained.
Giraffes once ranged over much of the semi-arid savannah and savannah woodlands of Africa. Today, they are found only south of the Sahara, and occupy only a fraction of their historic range as a result of human population expansion and changes in land use.
While giraffes fall prey to poaching for bushmeat, bones, skin and tail hair, there is also a significant amount of international trade in their bone carvings and trophies.
There is currently only one recognised species of giraffe, with nine sub-species. They have been listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List since 2016, with some sub-species classified as endangered or critically endangered. Five of the nine sub-species have only a small wild population, while four have a decreasing population trend. All are affected by trade.
Between 2006 and 2015, 39,516 giraffe specimens, including dead and live animals, as well as their parts or derivatives, were imported by the US. This is the equivalent of at least 3,751 individual giraffes (a conservative estimate calculated by counting only bodies and trophies). This includes 21,402 bone carvings, 3,008 skin pieces and 3,744 hunting trophies. These numbers were obtained using the US Law Enforcement Management Information System data on wildlife products.
Separate to US trade, online research summarised in the listing proposal revealed a total of 321 giraffe products for sale by sellers based in seven EU countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom), indicating the existence of a substantial market there as well.
Giraffes have a low reproductive output, making them susceptible to over-exploitation. Gestation is about 15 months and, typically, only one calf is born. Calves stay with their mothers for 22 months. Giraffes in the wild live for about 25 years, and typically females give birth to only five or six calves during their lives. Of these calves, it is possible that only half will survive.
The future survival of many other animals traded for their parts or as live specimens will be affected by decisions taken at this meeting by attending government representatives of most of the 183 member parties. They continue negotiating proposals on the longest agenda in CITES history, with the meeting scheduled to run until Wednesday August 28.
Collis added: “Illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade, coupled with habitat loss and other human-made threats, has decimated many species so that they are now at a tipping point for future survival. It is vital that over the next few days countries come together to do all they can to protect some of our most vulnerable species.”
Other key species still to be considered include otters, rhinos and elephants.