Giraffes were added on Thursday for the first time to a protection mechanism that restricts their international trade in response to a 36 percent to 40 percent decrease in the animals' numbers over the past 30 years.

The decision was adopted at the World Wildlife Conference CITES CoP18 held in Geneva over two weeks and attended by representatives from 183 countries.

CITES is the body that has regulated trade in the world's wildlife and threatened species of wild flora and fauna since 1975.

An overwhelming majority of 106 countries voted in favor of restricting trade in live giraffe specimens and parts, with 21 countries voting against and seven abstentions.

"CITES CoP18 Committee I this afternoon accepted by a vote that giraffe be included in CITES Appendix II to put all giraffes in the CITES trade control regime, pending final decision by Plenary on 28 August," the conference said in a post on its official Twitter account.

The protections were demanded by countries in Central Africa and West Africa, where the species is threatened with extinction after suffering significant decreases in its population in recent decades.

The proposal, however, was criticized by a group of countries in southern Africa on the basis of the achievements of their conservation programs.

From this point forward, any international trade in giraffes will be subject to a special export or re-export permit, which can only be issued by the relevant authorities if they consider that the commercial operation does not threaten the survival of the species in its natural environment.

Giraffes live in free-range environments exclusively in Africa and it is estimated that there are currently around 50,000 specimens left, the chief of the scientific support team at the CITES Secretariat, Thomas de Meulenaer, told EFE.

The African countries that have led the campaign to protect giraffes are desperate to safeguard the few individuals left in their territories and say that restricting international trade in the animals will help the species recover and draw international attention to this issue.

Virtually all giraffes live in natural parks, which in the countries of Central Africa and West Africa are insufficient in number, while the parks that exist are poorly equipped because of lack of adequate funding.

The high rate of population growth in Africa is the biggest threat to giraffes because humans increasingly occupy land that is part of the mammal's habitat, De Meulenaer said.

In addition, giraffes are being hunted for their meat, tails and leather, and as trophies.

The southern African countries of Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe tried to prevent the trade restrictions from being imposed on them on the grounds that their giraffe populations were not only healthy, but they have even grown in recent years.

The conference, however, refused to make exceptions, with these countries saying they will be officially reserving their right to refuse to comply.

"We reject this decision entirely because it does not rely on scientific criteria or recognize the progress made in countries that host 70 percent of the world's giraffe population," a delegate from Tanzania said on behalf of the group.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora conference is set to run until Aug 28, with around 3,000 experts from all over the world attending. EFE-EPA