Why ending the illegal wildlife trade matters

In Kaziranga National Park, India in 2009, where rhino poaching has reached its highest level for two decades.

In Kaziranga National Park, India in 2009, where rhino poaching has reached its highest level for two decades.

This week is an important one for international conservation.  The Government is hosting a major conference on the illegal wildlife trade, focusing on the serious threat to elephants, rhinos and tigers in particular from poaching to satisfy the demand for animal body parts.  There’ll be a two day symposium hosted by the Zoological Society of London, followed by a high level event hosted by the Prime Minister with delegates from around the globe.  John Kerry is rumoured to be attending, demonstrating the priority which the US is now giving to the issue after President Obama’s Executive Order last year.  Significantly, China is expected to send a senior representative.

WWF states the problem forcefully:

The illegal wildlife trade is one of the biggest threats to the survival of some of the world’s most threatened species.  In fact it’s second only to habitat destruction as a cause of loss for many species.

There's been an unprecedented spike in illegal wildlife trade across the world in recent years, which is threatening to overturn decades of conservation successes, especially for key species like rhinos, elephants and tigers.

In yesterday’s Sunday Times I set out why the illegal trade must be beaten:

In 1979, there were estimated to be 1.3m wild elephants in Africa.  Now there are fewer than 400,000.  In the past three years, elephant poaching levels on the continent have exceeded 5 per cent of the total population, horribly significant because it is a tipping point: killings are outpacing the animals’ birth rate.

The hideous trade in ivory does not just affect animals.  It has an impact on communities and fuels serious crime.  The UN estimates that it is now the third most lucrative criminal activity after narcotics and human trafficking, worth a staggering $19bn a year.

Tougher law enforcement is needed.  The price of rhino horn on the black market is now about $100,000 (£60,000) a kilo, more than that of gold or platinum.  Blood ivory has replaced blood diamonds as a means for serious criminal organisations to finance their activities, including terrorism.

Al-Shabaab, which killed 62 people in its attack on a shopping centre in Nairobi last September, may have funded that operation with illegally obtained ivory sold on the black market to buy arms.

I also called a Commons debate on this issue last week.  As the Director of IFAW reported, MPs “called for robust action rather than just warm words.”   Resources are required, as Will Travers, President of the Born Free Foundation, persuasively argues, as well as leadership.

I’ve tried to make the case before that we need to find mechanisms to value wildlife if we want to conserve it effectively.  As I argued in the Sunday Times:

 If local communities can derive little value from animals such as elephants, but only bear the costs in terms of crop damage, injury or death, the incentives for conservation are lost.

Animals can be protected by realising their value, for instance through eco-tourism.

For some, the idea of placing an economic value on wildlife is anathema. In one sense we all see magnificent wildlife as priceless.

But poachers put a precise monetary value on these animals, and for as long as we value them less, the poaching will continue.

We also need to eradicate - not just reduce - the irrational demand for animal body parts, which means education programmes and leadership to change attitudes in the Far East.  That objective is incompatible with selling stocks of ivory, even if the objective - to fund conservation measures and try to satisfy demand through legal sales - is well intentioned.

Today IFAW, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, organises an ‘ivory crush’, publicly destroying ivory to draw attention to the problem. The UK has no public stocks of ivory, so this is material donated from private sources.  But last week France destroyed 3.5 tonnes publicly.

I’ve always argued against ivory sales on the grounds that we should choke, not stoke, the market.  Some disagree - there was an interesting debate in the Guardian last week - but as I set out in the Commons, the evidence is that sales didn’t work.  It’s claimed that taking ivory off the market merely increases the price of the remaining product.  But so does the diminishing pool of animals.

This week’s conference is backed by Prince Charles and Prince William, who yesterday launched a video calling for action against the illegal wildlife trade.  The symposium has been sponsored by United for Wildlife, an alliance of international conservation organisations brought together by Prince William to focus on threats to the natural world.

Some see Prince William’s stance as incompatible with his deer stalking in Spain last week.  That is to confuse the cause of wildlife conservation with that of animal rights.  Deer are anything but endangered; indeed, with the extinction of their natural predators, they have to be culled.  Ironically, the day after the Prince was criticised, the Sunday Times reported concern by a Scottish Parliamentary Committee that deer numbers were too high.  Rob Gibson, the SNP MSP and Convener of the Rural Affairs, Climate and Environment Change Committee, said:

The impact of deer on the environment, everybody agrees, is considerable .…  What needs to be addressed is the balance between deer numbers and the environment.

Of course, views differ on country sports.  I believe they are a force for conservation; others object on moral grounds, regardless of any wider benefits.  But don’t let’s confuse those issues with the imperative of conserving the last tigers, elephants and rhinos on earth.