Giraffes are a threatened species and many of their populations are endangered and declining.
But until now, no international regulations governed their trade. On Thursday, at a conference in Geneva, countries overwhelmingly agreed to add giraffes to the list of animals protected by the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES.
While trade in giraffes will still be allowed, countries will be required to take measures to ensure it does not detrimentally affect populations.
“Giraffes are one of the most emblematic species in Africa, but until now, they were not protected on the international level,” said Col. Abba Sonko, head of Senegal’s CITES delegation. Senegal, along with the Central African Republic, Chad, Kenya, Mali and Niger, nominated giraffes for inclusion in the convention. “We realized their populations are decreasing year to year, so we wanted to list the species in CITES to increase protections,” he said.
Some experts question, however, whether regulating trade will make a meaningful difference for giraffes.
“Many people have talked about this being a nice political move with a lot of emotions behind it, but it doesn’t appear to be as scientifically robust as maybe it should be,” said Julian Fennessy, co-chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s giraffe and okapi specialist group and a co-founder of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Windhoek, Namibia. “We need to focus more on boots and resources on the ground, especially in East and Central Africa, to stop giraffe decline.”
Giraffe populations have decreased by 40 percent across Africa since 1985, with about 100,000 left today. Senegal, like many West African countries, has lost all of its giraffes.
“Maybe giraffes lived in Senegal 40 years ago, but it’s been a long time,” Colonel Sonko said.
Divided into nine subspecies, giraffes are primarily threatened by habitat loss. In Central and East Africa, they are also vulnerable to poaching for domestic consumption.
What role, if any, international trade plays in the species’ decline is less certain. No one knows how many live giraffes or giraffe parts are traded internationally each year, because countries previously were not required to track or share data.
A United States trade database, one of the few sources of information, indicates that about 40,000 giraffe specimens representing at least 3,700 animals were imported between 2006 and 2015. Most were bone carvings, followed by hunting trophies and skins.
More than 90 percent came from legal sources, according to Fred Bercovitch, an ecologist at Kyoto University in Japan and executive director of Save the Giraffes, a nonprofit based in San Antonio.
But about 50 of the imports came from Nubian giraffes, a critically endangered subspecies, said Dr. Bercovitch, who served as a scientific adviser on the CITES proposal.
“It’s pretty shortsighted for conservationists to say illegal trade is not a big deal because it’s only killing a few animals each year,” he said. “These are endangered species.”
Not all of Africa’s giraffes are in trouble. Southern African populations have doubled since 1985 and are stable. Much of that success is attributed to trophy hunting and the financial incentives it provides to set aside land and protections for animals, said Francois Deacon, an ecologist at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. About half of South Africa’s 30,000 giraffes, for example, live on privately owned game farms. “Trophy hunting has helped to increase our numbers,” he said.
The new CITES listing, Dr. Deacon added, might scare away hunting clients who interpret it as meaning all giraffes are in trouble. “With the emotional side of it, people don’t think logically,” Dr. Deacon said.
At the CITES conference, representatives of Southern African countries — including Botswana, South Africa, Namibia and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) — spoke against the CITES proposal, arguing that their giraffe populations are not endangered and are already being sustainably managed.
“I think they felt they were being accused of having threatened populations, but nobody said that,” said Sue Lieberman, vice president for international policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City. “You have to look at the species as a whole.”
Of the 127 parties who voted on the proposal, 83 percent supported it, including the United States. “We believe this to be a common-sense approach that will ensure that trade is sustainable and legal and that these iconic animals can continue to persist for generations to come,” said Barbara Wainman, assistant director of external affairs at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Trump administration indicated last spring that it was reviewing whether giraffes should be listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act, but no decision has been made. More recently, the administration moved to weaken the act’s protections overall.
More will be needed to stop the decline of giraffes, Dr. Lieberman said, but the vote is a step in the right direction. “Adding giraffes to CITES is not going to ‘save’ the species, because there’s lots of threats like habitat loss,” she said. “But this will help us get a handle on the trade issue and draw attention to the fact that in large parts of Africa, giraffes are really declining.”