As the delegates to the Hanoi Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade fly home, we need to reflect on the outcomes.
Ahead of the meeting, hopes for real progress had been high and citizens around the world waited eagerly for news.
The result appears to be distinctly lacking both in lustre and ambition.
While attendees re-affirmed their intention to crack down on the illegal trade in products such as ivory, to pursue demand-reduction strategies and to tackle domestic ivory markets, concrete evidence of progress were sorely lacking.
As Prince William said in his keynote address, “We aren’t moving fast enough to keep up with the crisis”, admitting that “we’re still falling behind.”
Indicators of that lack of progress include:
• the ongoing and devastating impact that it has on wildlife populations of iconic species such as elephants and rhino;
• the murderous way that it is carried out which causes the death not only of hundreds of thousands of wild animals each year but many people including rangers, wardens, community members and, of course, poachers;
• its links to terrorism and organised crime;
• the fact that few people of significance have been arrested and convicted,
• the rate of poaching and illegal trade which seems undiminished;
• evidence of high level corruption which protects those involved.
The Hanoi Conference did indicate a greater willingness on behalf of wealthy countries (notably Germany, the United States, France and the UK) to make higher levels of investment in a suite of measures aimed at tackling wildlife crime from improved enforcement in the field, the training of prosecutors and judiciary; the upgrading of national laws; increased tariffs and penalties, including deterrent sentencing and the sequestration of assets; the disruption of trade supply routes; and additional education-led demand reduction strategies in consumer countries.
Nevertheless any sense that the measures taken so far are having the desired impact is hard to find.
Notwithstanding its welcome step up in terms of financial commitment, the United Kingdom did not announce, as some had hoped, a timetable for the closure of its domestic market but, again, paraded its interim measure – a ban on the sale of all modern, ‘post-1947’ ivory – a move that has been widely criticised as being wholly inadequate.
Already over 63,500 people have signed a Petition calling for immediate and conclusive action to honour a now long-in-the-tooth Manifesto pledge, made in both 2010 and 2014, to “press for a total ban on ivory sales.”
Despite the urgency of the situation (some estimate that one elephant is poached every 15 minutes) and despite evidence broadcast in the BBC documentary ‘Saving Africa’s Elephants – Hugh and the Ivory War’ (BBC1 October 2016) that clearly showed the link between sales of UK ivory declared as ‘antique’ and the laundering of modern ivory to markets in the Far East, the Government plans to ‘consult on the ban in early next year (2017) as a first step to meeting the manifesto commitment.
It is simply not enough.
On a more positive note, the United Kingdom has agreed to host the 4th Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference in 2018 but what sort of picture will we be looking at by then? Thousands fewer elephants, rhino, pangolins, lions? And what will we read in our newspapers – that another meeting has come and good, fine words have been spoken, more pledges have been made, more hands wrung?
Or will we see the results of concerted international action, based on a proper, published plan, with measurable outcomes that reduce poaching, increase protection, secure convictions, dismantle supply-routes, improve security, champion anti-corruption and depress demand?
I hope so because the world’s threatened wildlife cannot wait, and my friends in ranger forces and wildlife law-enforcement agencies cannot hold back the tide forever.
As things stand, and as Prince William said in Hanoi, “A betting man would still bet on extinction.”