Twenty five years ago I joined a throng of young activists, conservationists, investigators and journalists outside La Grande Salle in the Lausanne Conference Centre in Switzerland and waited for the verdict. Would the world ban the international, commercial ivory trade – or blink?
The decision to ban the trade was made and, at the time, we all thought this would lead to a far more secure future for wild elephants.
I thought it might also be the precursor to better times for other species under threat, iconic species such as tigers and rhino.
So why, in February 2014, did the UK Government and Princes Charles and William feel the need to host a crisis meeting on Wildlife Trafficking, seeking the agreement of the international community to a raft of urgent measures to try and halt the bloody slaughter that has been visited on these and other species over the last decade or more?
It could have been because of the now widely-accepted links between international crime and the brutal activities of militia groups and the illegal wildlife trade. It could have been because the numbers were now simply too devastating to ignore (10,000 elephants poached each year in Tanzania alone). It could have been because of the growing anxiety, distress and outrage expressed by people all over the world on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
But whatever the reason, the London Summit, as it has become known, managed to secure the agreement of a number of key countries which signed the London Declaration, committing them, amongst other actions, to:
- Eradicate the market for illegal wildlife products
- Ensure Effective Legal Frameworks and Deterrents to combat wildlife trafficking
- Promote sustainable livelihoods and economic development, as a means of eradicating the illegal trade in wildlife.
Just over a year later, how does the scorecard look?
If we consider the three species highlighted at the London Summit:
The latest intelligence indicates that elephant poaching continues unabated. Zimbabwe’s elephant population is down 10,000 from the 2001 census. Rumours abound that elephant numbers in key Tanzanian Parks and Reserves are massively depleted. Mali may be on the verge of losing all its elephants. Small, fragile populations in Central and West African countries teeter on the brink of annihilation. On the demand side of the equation, in February 2015 China introduced a one-year ban on the import of some categories of ivory products, although the scope of the measure appears to be very limited.
In 2014, South Africa lost 1,215 rhino to poachers (up by over 200 animals from the previous record year). The situation may get even worse if that country continues to pursue its increasingly controversial and discredited plans to legalise rhino horn trade.
Reports from India indicate that wild tiger populations may be starting to recover in some areas, although poaching and illegal trade persist across much of the tiger’s range, in spite of the several hundred million dollars injected into the Global Tiger Recovery Plan in recent years.
Other species such as lions, recently declared ‘threatened’ by the highly-respected United States Fish and Wildlife Service, are under relentless and unsustainable pressure across much of their range (so much so that the EU has suspended lion trophy imports from Ethiopia, Burkina Faso and Cameroon).
Whichever way you slice it, the results are deeply troubling. A follow-up meeting to the London Summit is due to take place in Kasane, Botswana, on March 25th. The key question facing delegates is simple: has the global response since the London Summit turned the tide and, if not, what do we need to do now?
In my view there are five key actions.
Firstly, stop pussy-footing around when it comes to wildlife law enforcement. Train and equip rangers and pay them properly. At the same time invest in innovative detection and infiltration strategies to disrupt and dismember the poaching and smuggling networks.
Secondly, evaluate and, where necessary, overhaul national legislation, in consultation with other countries to ensure deterrent, custodial tariffs for wildlife crime of consistent severity apply across borders so that there is no ‘soft touch’ for convicted criminals.
Thirdly, implement a complementary suite of legal sanctions to ensure that crime doesn’t pay and criminals do. Sequestrate their assets, confiscate their houses, clear out their bank accounts – make sure anyone aiding and abetting wildlife crime runs a high risk of losing everything.
Fourthly, prevail upon countries that are the end-user markets for wildlife products to declare that all trade – including legal trade where it is currently exists – in high value items from threatened or endangered species is banned. Agree that there will be no more exemptions for antiques or articles that were acquired before the species was listed by CITES. Close the loopholes, strangle the trade, choke the demand.
Finally, given the potentially damaging nature of illegal wildlife trade on social stability, public health, economic development and national and regional security in many countries – not to mention its direct impact on vulnerable wildlife populations – we need to link development aid to measures aimed at combatting illegal wildlife trade. In this way we can help deliver greater security to remote communities, increasingly threatened by insurgent militias such as Al Shebab and Boko Haram, a factor recognised by both the British and US Governments and set out in Born Free USA’s recent reports Ivory’s Curse and Out of Africa.
The funds currently committed to tackling illegal wildlife trade represent a tiny fraction of countries’ international development budgets. The UK has given £10 million so far but our overseas aid budget alone stands at £12.2 billion. These substantial resources, if carefully applied, can have a powerful, positive influence and help reduce wildlife trafficking, while bringing life-changing social, economic and conservation benefits to some of the world’s most disenfranchised communities.
The Kasane meeting provides an opportunity for delegates to review the state-of-play, assess the impact of actions taken so far, and identify those actions that still need to be implemented. It also provides an opportunity to encourage key countries, such as South Africa, Thailand and India – that were not signatories to the London Declaration – to ‘step up’ and be counted.
Twenty five years ago I was in Switzerland. On the 25th of March I will be in Kasane and once again the world will be watching.