I was invited to attend the 4th Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) Conference in London and the situation remains truly terrifying. Of course it’s great to see a committed international response to tackling this complex challenge and to hear that this is the largest conference so far with over 80 governments and over 1,000 delegates, but unless something is done immediately to end the £17.5 billion trade in illegal wildlife, we are still looking at mass extinction of animals in our lifetime because the scale of wildlife crime has increased dramatically in recent years. Poaching levels for many species remains unsustainably high and organised criminal networks continue to profit from the proceeds of the trade – it is estimated that the illegal wildlife trade is the fourth most profitable criminal enterprise in the world.
The Duke of Cambridge, as President of “United for Wildlife” has once again been busy putting his influence to good use by making an impassioned plea for everyone to work together to destroy the criminal gangs behind ivory smuggling saying “they are the very same groups who move drugs, people and weapons. I for one am not willing to look my children in the eye and say that we were the generation that let this happen on our watch. It is time to treat the illegal wildlife trade as the serious organised crime that it is. It is heartbreaking to think that by the time my children are in their twenties, elephants, rhinos and tigers might well be extinct in the wild.”
He and Lord Hague in their role in The United for Wildlife International Taskforce launched a new financial initiative yesterday (after the transportation declaration they did previously) for a major global agreement amongst 22 global banks (so far) to crack down on wildlife money laundering. The money laundering enables violence, corruption, crime and deprivation that present a threat to communities around the world. Therefore it is focusing on one of the crucial missing links, bringing together a strong critical mass of bankers by raising awareness for staff around the world and securing information sharing systems and working with cross disciplinary teams.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told the conference that the UK Government will commit £15 million to help disrupt the trade. Environment Secretary Michael Gove outlined the UK government’s commitment and announced that British troops will be sent to Africa as part of a £900,000 project to tackle poaching by helping to train park rangers. Listening to the panel entitled “Voices from the frontline” the working conditions of the rangers are terrible and they certainly need our support. Rangers do an incredibly difficult job under very difficult circumstances (81% of the rangers interviewed agreed) and a survey showed that 6% of them end up with broken bones – it’s 5% in the army. They are ill-equipped and often live far from home, only visiting family every 8 months, so they are not only physically stressed but mentally stressed.
In this photo, you can see the stats up on the screen as we heard from rangers from Bhutan and Malawi:-
I attended a lot of talks and listened to a lot of ministers and everyone is trying to find a way to address the problems, but the problems remain huge. IWT not only destroys the animals but also harms communities and the people who live in them. It is fuelled by corruption, damages economic growth and deprives societies of their valuable natural resources. It is not just a wildlife issue, it is also economic and the motivation for killing elephants and other animals is for financial gain. The President of Uganda, His Excellency Yoweri Museveni called for a “social metamorphosis” whereby the whole infrastructure is addressed in order to modernise and industrialise Africa. You can’t look at the IWT in isolation, it has to be part of a wider conversation about agriculture, sustainable conservation and improved facilities.
This year the focus was on tackling the underlying causes of this crime. People turn to poaching to earn money, often because of poverty and a lack of opportunity – so surely more has to be done to help support the local communities in the first instance?
The tourism industry is also stepping up and there was a very interesting presentation by the World Tourism and Travel Council announcing that they have got the backing of over 100 CEO’s to start making a difference to each and every traveller and journey. Working with large tech companies, they plan to eradicate IWT from supply chains and invest in communities to provide sustainable livelihoods as well as building consumer awareness to reduce demand.
BUT. We still don’t have the answers and there is so much to be done. I felt a little disheartened that this crisis is bigger than ever and threatens the existence of some of the oldest species on the planet. We are running out of time and we cannot afford to waste yet another single day. The IWT significantly impacts African economies by diverting national budgets away from social or development programmes as well as increasing insecurity and threatening vulnerable populations. To tackle this threat, it is crucial to increase awareness of the economic incentives for Africa in countries that are most susceptible to IWT.
SO WHAT IS THE ANSWER??
I talked to a vet recently who works in conservation all around Africa and asked him his opinion. “You won’t like my answer” he told me, “but it’s the only way to stop the poachers in the short term. You need to put a price on the animals head and let the big American game hunters pay for them.” He said he was sick and tired of seeing not only huge numbers of dead elephants, but stressed elephants, whose behaviour has changed recently. “They are intelligent beasts and they have started changing their behaviour by hiding during the day and only coming out at night to feed in the forests.” His suggestion is that you allocate say four bull elephants to be hunted in the wild – not the canned hunting that happens at the moment, but a “fair” hunt. US hunters will apparently pay $50,000 per elephant and that is a lot of money for the community to sustain their conservation.” Despite being horrified at his suggestion, it did make sense – like making drugs legal, it stops the role of the drug dealer by taking away their power.
“When there are no elephants, there are no forests.
When there are no forests, there is no water.
When there is no water, there is no agriculture.”
The Chapman Brothers, decorated this rhino using their characteristic, shocking style by showing a rhino calf that had been killed for it’s horn:-
This one is less traumatic:-