We owe it to our children not to confine these magnificent creatures to the archives of history

Imagine the world without elephants, tigers or rhinos

As a child, I remember the first time I visited the Natural History Museum in London, being overwhelmed by the Diplodocus skeleton in the Central Hall (now known as the Hintze Hall in recognition of a generous donation from Sir Michael and Lady Hintze). I also remember my subsequent disappointment when I learned that these magnificent creatures no longer existed but were confined to the archives of history.

Tiger

Imagine a future where we take our own children to a natural history museum but instead of the bones of dinosaurs lay the relics of extinct tigers, elephants and rhinos. Imagine explaining to them that these incredible creatures had once roamed the wild in our own childhood but had been wiped out by human poachers and criminals for profit. Worse, imagine explaining our culpability in not doing enough to safeguard or protect these animals whilst we had the opportunity to do so.

When our children grow up and wish to explore, to discover and witness first-hand the wonders of the natural world, what do we want our legacy to be? That making a buck and a dime or turning a blind eye was more important than saving the greatest creatures to roam the earth?

The London Declaration

Earlier this month, governments from around the world convened at Lancaster House in London for a conference where world leaders vowed to save iconic species from the brink of extinction by taking action on the illegal wildlife trade.

The conference, chaired by Foreign Secretary William Hague and attended by the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry, attracted delegates from 46 countries and 11 UN organisations.

Prince William, who was also present at the conference and who has recently launched an organisation, Unite for Wildlife, also dedicated to combating the illegal wildlife trade, said: “We have to be the generation that stopped the illegal wildlife trade and secured the future of these magnificent animals, and their habitats, for if we fail, it will be too late.

Key states, including Botswana, Chad, Gabon, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Tanzania, and Vietnam, alongside the United States and Russia, all signed the London Declaration, an agreement outlining the steps needed to prevent animal poaching.

The conference heard first-hand from the Presidents of Botswana, Chad, Gabon and Tanzania, and the Foreign Minister of Ethiopia, who announced the implementation of the African Elephant Action Plan. Crucially, China, – a key market and driver of demand for many of the wildlife products – also had a minister representative at the conference.

The London Declaration represents an important shift from the illegal animal trade being a conservation agenda to one with a real political drive. It contains practical steps to end the illegal trade in rhino horn, tiger parts and elephant tusks that fuel criminal activity. It also promises commitments to help eradicate the demand for wildlife products, strengthen law enforcement, and support the development of sustainable livelihoods for communities affected by wildlife crime.

Key actions from the meeting include:

  • amending legislation to make poaching and wildlife trafficking “serious crimes” under the terms of the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime;
  • strengthening cross-border coordination and support for regional wildlife law enforcement networks;
  • further analysis to better understand the links between wildlife crime and other organised crime and corruption, and to explore links to terrorism;
  • enforcing a zero tolerance policy towards problems of money laundering related to wildlife crime;
  • strengthening the legal frameworks and helping local law enforcement;
  • improving cross-agency mechanisms to deal with wildlife crime;
  • endorsing governments which are destroying wildlife products and renouncing those using products from species threatened with extinction; and
  • support for continuing the existing international ban on commercial trade in elephant ivory.

The impact of the illegal wildlife trade

The London Declaration comes at a crucial time. According to a Chatham House report, demand for ivory has witnessed illegal poaching activity more than doubled in the past five years whilst the demand for other illegal wildlife trade products has also risen sharply over the past decade.

Rhino poaching increased 5,000% between 2007 and 2012, representative of one rhino being killed by a poacher every ten hours. South Africa alone lost more than 1,000 rhinos to poachers in 2013 which was a 50% increase on the year before, and up from just 13 in 2007.

In Africa, an estimated 22,000 elephants are killed annually for their ivory resulting in the Central African Region having lost two-thirds of its forest elephant population between 2002 and 2011. Furthermore, the decimation of tigers has seen their population shrink to an alarming 3,200 in the wild worldwide.

These unsustainable levels of slaughter are having a hugely detrimental effect on these species and they face a very real risk of extinction. As farfetched as it may seem to imagine the world without these animals, we would do well to remind ourselves that the Java, Caspian and Bali tiger sub-species all died out in the 20th century. Last year the Western Black Rhino was officially made extinct and the Asian elephant is now facing grave survival challenges. We simply cannot keep pretending that the unthinkable will not happen because it is happening and the time for action is now.

Equally disconcerting is the knowledge that the illegal wildlife trade also has a direct impact on human injury and death. It is estimated that well over 1,000 wildlife park rangers have been killed by commercial poachers and armed militia groups in the last decade alone. The number of poachers killed is likely to be even higher yet the criminal syndicates at the heart of this trade are rarely caught or prosecuted.

Philip Mansbridge, CEO of Care for the Wild International, said: “If anyone thinks that this is ‘just about saving a few animals’, then they are gravely mistaken. The human cost of wildlife poaching is also huge and growing. Park rangers are killed, communities are torn apart, the money from poaching is fuelling civil unrest and terrorism.”

The time to act is now

Many of the species the London Declaration aims to protect are on the critically endangered list and their survival depends on the commitments agreed up being implemented without delay.

Dr John G Robinson, a chief conservationist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said, “The declaration calls for governments to crack down on these criminals with stiffer penalties and more aggressive investigation and prosecution, including addressing the corruption and bribery that facilitate these crimes. It further calls for addressing this crisis at all points of the supply chain – where the animal is killed, where the parts are trafficked, and where the products are purchased.”

The leaders of Botswana, Chad, Gabon and Tanzania also agreed to a moratorium on the ivory trade for at least 10 years with President Khama of Botswana pledging to put the country’s ivory stockpiles out of reach of the markets.

This was in response to many NGOs calling for a total ban on all ivory sales and the destruction of stockpiles around the world. Without this, they say, poaching is unlikely to stop.

While the trade of ivory has been banned under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) since 1989, some states have been granted permission to sell their ivory stocks in the past.

In 1999, CITES authorised a ‘one-off’ sale of stockpiled ivory from Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia to Japan, and in 2008 Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe sold their stocks to buyers in China and Japan.

In essence, by issuing a 10-year moratorium, the four African states are saying they will uphold the ban, and not ask for permission from CITES to sell any of their ivory.

Countries around the world including France and China have in recently crushed tonnes of their seized ivory stockpiles in displays designed to raise public awareness of the issue whilst the US has announced that it would ban all ivory imports.

Grant T. Harris, special assistant to the president and senior director for African affairs, said: “Because of the actions of poachers, today species like elephants and rhinoceroses face the risk of significant decline or even extinction. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Today, we are taking action to stop these illicit networks and ensure that our children have the chance to grow up in the world with, and experience for themselves, the wildlife we know and love.”

The counter argument

Regardless of the intentions of the conference in all of its magnanimous goodwill, there are always two sides to every coin and the counterargument of the London Declaration is a strong one that requires careful consideration if we want it to succeed.

The main argument with the London Declaration is that despite drawing influential figures from around the world with bold intentions and impassioned promises, the simple fact of the matter is that this does not change the law of economics.

Demand from an increasingly affluent Asian middle class, in particular in China and Vietnam, where animal products, are used in as status symbols, tourist trinkets, traditional medicine or are bought by the rich as trophies, has driven the price of rhino horn to more than $60,000 per kilogram – more than the price of gold and cocaine – and ivory to around $2,000/kg.

The real problem here isn’t the poachers or the criminal enterprises that sponsor them, it is the demand from the ultra-affluent. So long as that demand persists, opportunists will find ways to deliver and honestly, who are we to blame or judge?

In regions where unemployment is high and the average national salary borders on the poverty line, an asking price of $300,000 for one rhino horn offers all the riches in the world for any would-be poacher, his entire family and beyond.

That figure is a death sentence on every rhino in Africa, on many poachers seeking to take advantage and many park rangers bold enough and noble enough to protect them. The illegal wildlife trade itself is estimated to be worth $19 billion dollars per year. That’s a sizeable chunk for desperate people looking to make a living for their family with very limited choices.

Prohibition, the war on drugs and prostitution have taught us time and again throughout history that you cannot stifle demand by banning supply. By outlawing something that is sought after you merely raise both the price of the product and the risk of procuring it.

Reducing consumption of any product requires reducing demand. It is for this reason that the London Declaration needs to go further than the proposed actions. It must also create a strategy, not just to cut illegal poaching but to support tigers, rhinos and elephants thriving in their natural habitat. It must also determine how to tackle the demand by fundamentally altering the attitudes towards animal products through education.

I’m being unfair, though. I can’t expect anyone to have all the answers to such a complex challenge. Despite reservations that the London Declaration might not offer an all-encompassing and comprehensive solution to the illegal wildlife trade, it is nonetheless a huge leap in the right direction and a campaign with a strong sense of benevolence in its heart, well deserving of a right thinking person’s support.

Please join me in pledging yours here by following #endwildlifecrime on Twitter for the latest news and information or by making a donation where you can. If not for you, for future generations who can enjoy these most magnificent of creatures where they belong, in the wild.

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