WASHINGTON —After a petition and threat to sue from animal protection and conservation groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today announced that the common hippopotamus may qualify for protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
In March 2022, Humane Society International, the Humane Society of the United States, Humane Society Legislative Fund and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition seeking federal protections for this iconic species, which is disappearing from the wild. After the Fish and Wildlife Service missed its June 2022 deadline to respond to the petition, the groups sent notice of their intent to sue on World Hippo day. Today’s announcement from the agency provides the legally required initial response.
Hippos are threatened by habitat loss and degradation, drought, poaching, and the international demand for hippo parts, including teeth, skulls, ivory, skin and meat.
Adam Peyman, wildlife programs director for Humane Society International, speaking on behalf of HSI and the HSUS, said: “This is an important first step towards saving hippos by providing the protections they so badly need under the Endangered Species Act. These animals face threats from climate change, poaching and the commercial demand for their skin, bones, teeth and other parts and products. Protections for hippos cannot come soon enough.”
International trade in hippo parts and products is significant, with the United States playing an outsized role. Between 2009 and 2018, the United States imported thousands of hippo parts and products, including over 9,000 teeth, 700 skin pieces, 4,400 small leather products, 2,000 trophies and 1,700 carvings. Combined, these imports represent a minimum of 3,081 hippos killed to fuel the legal U.S. trade, which remains unchecked due to the absence of ESA protections for the species.
“With the many clear threats they’re facing, hippos are a shoo-in for Endangered Species Act protections, but the Biden administration dilly-dallied an extra nine months before making this finding,” said Tanya Sanerib, international legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This hippo delay is just the tip of the iceberg, and it highlights that the Biden administration isn’t doing nearly enough to combat the burgeoning extinction crisis. If iconic species like hippos are waiting in purgatory for protections, that doesn’t bode well for the future of life on Earth.”
Across many parts of the United States, hippo parts and products are readily available for purchase. A 2022 undercover investigation by HSI and the HSUS revealed thousands of items made from hippo parts for sale in the United States. Products made from hippo leather, such as belts, shoes and purses, and items made from hippo ivory, such as carvings and handles on knives and bottle openers, were among the most common items found for sale. Trophies, such as shoulder mounts (the animal's head and neck) and mounted teeth, were also available for purchase. Some of these items may have been illegally acquired or traded due to the lack of effective regulatory enforcement.
The Endangered Species Act protections that the groups are seeking would place near-total restrictions on most commercial imports and sales of hippo specimens and raise public awareness and increase funding to achieve the law’s conservation goals.
"We are pleased to see the Biden Administration's announcement toward listing this iconic species," says Tracie Letterman, vice president of federal affairs at Humane Society Legislative Fund. "For the last 50 years, the Endangered Species Act has helped save 99% of listed species from extinction. We look forward to supporting the administration in its work to ensure the protection of the hippo and other imperiled species for decades to come."
Under federal law, the Fish and Wildlife Service must next decide whether Endangered Species Act listing is warranted. Given its delay in providing an initial response to the petition, the agency will likely miss its deadline for this second determination — due in four days’ time. The groups will continue to closely monitor the progress of the petition during the next phase of the process.
- The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies the common hippopotamus as “vulnerable,” meaning it is facing a high risk of extinction in the wild. There may be as few as 115,000 adult hippos remaining in the wild in Africa today, with populations continuing to decline in most range States.
- Hippos are not listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. As a result, domestic trade within the United States is not regulated at a federal level, and imports of hippo parts and products are not scrutinized under the ESA’s strict standards. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service receives a petition to list a species under the ESA, it must make an initial determination as to whether listing may be warranted within 90 days. If the agency determines listing may be warranted in its initial determination, it must then decide whether listing is warranted within 12 months of receiving the petition.
- Hippos are listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, meaning that legal trade in their parts must be controlled to prevent it from threatening their survival. Despite their inclusion on CITES Appendix II, the species’ conservation status continues to deteriorate, and at the most recent CITES Conference of the Parties, member states failed to adopt a proposed revision to hippos’ CITES listing that would have prohibited all exports of wild specimens for commercial purposes.
- Between 2018 and 2021, Humane Society International and the Humane Society of the United States conducted an undercover investigation of hippo parts and products being sold in stores throughout the United States and online. This investigation found a variety of hippo parts and products readily available for purchase in many states. Products found included leather products (purses, belts, Western boots and hides), raw ivory (molar teeth, tusks and full skulls), worked ivory (carvings, scrimshawed tusk, painted tusk, ivory-handled bottle openers and knives, and figurines), and trophies (full shoulder mounts and mounted teeth).