While animal prints have gone in and out of fashion over the decades (for what it’s worth, they are currently in), actual exotic animal skins are generally frowned upon by eco-conscious consumers. But a new investigation by Humane Society International and the Humane Society of the United States reveals that some Americans have a taste for the real thing: Over the last decade, 40,000 giraffe skins and body parts have been imported into the U.S. from Africa.
In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the scientific body that maintains the international endangered species list, placed giraffes on the list for the first time, changing their status from “least concern” to “vulnerable” and listing two subspecies as “endangered.” That’s because habitat degradation, poaching and human conflicts have reduced giraffe numbers by more than 30 percent over 30 years, to just under 100,000 animals. However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the endangered species list in the United States, does not list giraffes as endangered, meaning that it’s still legal to import bits and pieces of giraffes into the U.S.
To get a handle on just how many giraffe products are reaching the U.S., HSI investigators looked at the market for giraffes in the U.S. They found 51 dealers across the U.S. that sell giraffe parts, both online and in stores. Among the items they encountered were a fully taxidermied juvenile giraffe, a custom giraffe jacket for $5,500, skulls, hides, rugs, a giraffe leather Bible cover and a bracelet. The other 40,000 items imported between 2006 and 2015 include 21,000 giraffe bone carvings, 4,000 raw bones and 2,000 bone pieces, as well as 700 full skins and 3,000 partial skins. The most common giraffe product found by the investigation was western-style boots made from giraffe hide, costing around $400. Those combined items represent some 4,000 individual giraffes.
According to the final report, trophy hunters are the source of most of the raw materials used in giraffe products. Karen Weintraub at The New York Times reports most trophy hunters take the head and part of the neck of the animal and leave the rest of the carcass with hunting outfitters, who supply the U.S. market with the remains. Adam Peyman, manager of wildlife programs and operations for HSI, tells Sam Wolfson at The Guardian that the outfitters try to get as much money as they can from the giraffes. "The prices of these products vary widely, but it is clear that outfitters and dealers try to squeeze every last dollar out of the carcasses of these animals," he says, "evidenced especially by the grotesque pillow our investigator found that was furnished from a giraffe’s face, eyelashes and all.”
As restrictions have tightened on importing products from other African animals into the U.S., giraffes have become the exotic animal of choice. Bringing home elephant trophies and lion hides from certain countries, for example, was banned under the Obama administration, though a court struck down that ban in March. Even so, giraffes make up the lion's share of the African megafauna market.
Despite the legality of the trade, HSI says the import of giraffe parts is a pressure the animals simply don’t need. “Purchasing giraffe parts puts the entire species at risk,” Kitty Block, president of HSI, says in the statement. “The giraffe is going quietly extinct. With the wild population at just under 100,000, there are now fewer than one third the number of giraffes in Africa than elephants.”
HSI's Peyman tells Weintraub that American trophy hunting isn’t one of the primary drivers reducing the animal’s population, but it’s certainly not helping. “We can’t afford any additional pressure amidst what experts have dubbed the silent extinction,” he says. “These are products that most people wouldn’t be interested in, but I think it’s important to raise awareness among the public to the fact that these things are sold across the country.”
Weintraub reports that the Safari Club International, a hunter’s rights group, argues that hunting giraffes is actually good for conservation and “despite the rhetoric in the media, legal regulated hunting is one of the most effective means of conservation.” They say the fees paid by trophy hunters support conservation efforts in poorer nations that don’t have the resources to protect wild areas. Others argue that culling old, sick or weak members of an animal population improves the herd's overall health. Critics point out that it’s difficult to trace where government hunting fees actually go, and in some corrupt nations it’s unlikely they are channeled back into conservation. Others argue that hunting big game is simply wasteful or cruel.
HSI investigators also found that some dealers told falsehoods about giraffes to justify the sale of the items to customers, claiming that the giraffes were killed because they were aggressive and were dangerous to villagers and their crops. While that is sometimes the case with elephants, who trample and munch crops, giraffes eat leaves off trees and do not pose a threat to people or agriculture.
The investigators hope this report will provide more evidence for a petition filed with the Fish and Wildlife Service in July 2017. Sent by HSI along with other legal and conservation groups, it asks the FWS to list the giraffe as an endangered species, which would limit the import, sale and interstate trade in giraffe products.