Conservationists have lodged a formal request for the US government to list giraffes as endangered in a bid to prevent what they call the “silent extinction” of the world’s tallest land animal. A legal petition filed by five environmental groups has demanded that the US Fish and Wildlife Service provide endangered species protections to the giraffe, which has suffered a precipitous decline in numbers in recent years. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which listed giraffes as a threatened species in December, just 97,500 of the animals exist in sub-Saharan Africa today, a drop of almost 40% since 1985. There are now fewer giraffes than elephants in Africa. Giraffes have suffered from loss of habitat, disease and illegal hunting for bushmeat. They also face the risk of collisions with vehicles and power lines. But the petitioners argue that the species is facing added pressure from “trophy” hunters who travel to Africa to shoot their big-game quarry. These hunters overwhelmingly come from the US. According to the groups’ analysis of import data, Americans imported 21,402 bone carvings, 3,008 skin pieces and 3,744 miscellaneous hunting trophies from giraffes over the past decade. At least 3,700 individual giraffes are thought to have been killed for such items. An endangered species listing would place heavy restrictions on any American hunter wishing to travel to Africa and bring back a slaughtered giraffe. A hunter would have to somehow demonstrate the taking of the giraffe trophy was helping sustain the species. The petition states that the US is “uniquely positioned to help conserve these tall, graceful and iconic animals”. It adds: “Considering the ongoing threats to giraffes and their small remaining populations, now is the time for Endangered Species Act protections for this seriously and increasingly imperiled species.” The plight of giraffes, which have necks as long as six feet and tongues that reach 20in, has caught some conservationists by surprise. The peril faced by the animals has somewhat been overshadowed by the poaching crisis engulfing elephants and rhinos as well as high profile controversies such as the slaughter of Cecil the lion by a Minnesota dentist in Zimbabwe in 2015. But recent surveys have painted a stark picture of decline for giraffes, which now live in increasingly fragmented habitats. The role played by trophy hunters was highlighted in August when pictures emerged of a 12-year-old girl from Utah posing beside the slumped body of a dead giraffe. “When I was doing research on giraffes in Kenya a few years ago, they were quite abundant and no one questioned that they were doing well,” said Jeff Flocken, North America regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw). “Only recently have we looked at them critically and seen this huge drop, which has been a shock to the conservation community. This is an iconic animal and it’s in deep trouble.” Flocken said while the US could not do much to prevent the killing of giraffes in Africa, the regulation of trophy imports would be a “significant” step in stemming the decline of the species. “In the past few years, several gruesome images of trophy hunters next to slain giraffe bodies have caused outrage, bringing this senseless killing to light,” said Masha Kalinina, international trade policy specialist with Humane Society International. “Currently, no US or international law protects giraffes against overexploitation for trade. It is clearly time to change this. As the largest importer of trophies in the world, the role of the United States in the decline of this species is undeniable, and we must do our part to protect these animals.” In September, genetic research revealed that there are four distinct species of giraffe, not just one as long believed. However, the endangered species petition requests protection for all giraffes regardless of sub-species. The Fish and Wildlife Service deemed the African lion to be endangered in 2015 in an attempt to conserve the species. Donald Trump’s sons, who are avid hunters, have been pictured holding parts of an elephant and a leopard. However, the process of listing endangered species has not been altered under the new administration. Under federal rules, the Fish & Wildlife Service has 90 days to respond to the petition and determine whether a listing may be warranted. It can then take more than a year to assess and decide upon the request.