I’ve been to many international wildlife meetings over the years – perhaps too many. You either leave with head low, despairing at the lack of action, or with a sense of optimism that things are actually getting better.
So it was at the Kasane Meeting on Illegal Wildlife Trade and Elephant Protection that just ended at the Cresta Safari Resort on the banks of the Zambezi. I feel that perhaps there is cause for optimism. Why?
Countries are doing something (at last)!
Ivory stockpiles – a relentless temptation to trade – are being destroyed or will soon be. Ethiopia and Kenya’s Ivory burns, which took place over the last couple of weeks, will be followed by Malawi, Uganda and the UAE.
Enforcement efforts are improving – no doubt helped by significant German financial support, the forensic training of hundreds of rangers in Botswana, sponsored by the Netherlands, and better border security in hotspots like Ethiopia thanks to Born Free and the UK government’s Wildlife Challenge Fund.
Open admission at the meeting that corruption plays a major role in facilitating illegal trade was explicit and countries lined up to pledge additional support for the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC). Furthermore, the meeting made clear its intentions to apply anti-money-laundering protocols (wildlife crime now to be designated a ‘predicate offense’) and to include measures which permit the sequestration of assets, so criminals don’t get away with it.
The setting up of the Transport Task Force under the leadership of the UK’s former Foreign Secretary, William Hague, will bring far more attention to the transport links and weaknesses in shipping security which currently make it all too easy for wildlife products, including ivory, to be smuggled with relative impunity.
Vietnam and China, so often painted in a very unfavourable light by the international community and the media alike when it comes to wildlife trade-related issues, announced improved enforcement effort, increased public education programmes to reduce demand and extensive further reviews of internal trade controls (although falling short of the outright prohibition of domestic ivory trade in China, that so many, including Born Free, are calling for).
But, make no mistake, the situation remains grave, indeed desperate.
Over 1,200 rhino poached in South Africa in 2014 alone.
Nearly 90 wild tigers confirmed poached in that same year.
Real decline in elephant populations which, at best, may be 470,000 across the entire Continent (with 130,000 of those – or 30% – found in Botswana).
Recognition that massive, out of control illegal trade in little-known animals such as pangolins (also known as ‘scaly anteaters’) may be driving the 8 species towards extinction.
However, while there were the positives, of some concern, from my point of view, was the lacklustre contribution made by a number of technical delegates, the organisations and people that countries turn to for the facts. Their contributions were confused, inconsistent and there are still major gaps in the data which, after all this time and all this money, you would have thought they would have nailed. Maybe we make it all too complicated and when it gets too complicated decisions are hard to make.
To me, it is simple.
There are too many of us and too few of them (however you define them – elephants, rhino , lions, tigers, etc.) for us any longer to think we can try to justify our continued terminal exploitation of so many species by dressing it up as ‘sustainable use’. My view is we need to regard these species – maybe they should be called World Heritage Species – as a precious part of our common inheritance and we should, as a matter of obligation, provide the resources for their future protection and conservation (and the wild lands they need in order to flourish) regardless of whether we can ‘make them pay their way’.
Just as when, as nations, we invest in admiring and conserving great works of art for the common good of humanity, and are appalled when they are wantonly destroyed, so we should regard the living treasures of our natural world – and make the resources available to so discharge our responsibility for their long term survival.
Kasane may mark a watershed. Stimulated by the London Conference in February 2014, nations may have discovered that they care a bit more than they thought, can do more than they’d had originally intended – and are willing to be held to account for their actions.
The next meeting will be in Vietnam. That is when we will truly discover whether our new and increasingly global efforts to end wildlife crime, and bring security to threatened wildlife species and the fragile human communities that they live alongside, will have made the difference we – and the wildlife we care about – need to see.