International Wildlife Conservation

1. Introduction

It's a pleasure to be here today.  Thank you to the Wildlife Trust for India and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) for hosting this event.

Yesterday, I was fortunate to go with WTI and IFAW to visit Kaziranga National Park and learn about the wonderful conservation work underway there to protect magnificent animals such as elephants, tigers and rhinos.   I pay tribute to the organisations and staff for what they are doing.

I want to talk this evening about the threats facing our natural world and how we can ensure that future generations can enjoy these incredible creatures.

We urgently need to face up to the impact on wildlife from the degradation of ecosystems, the world's current unsustainable demand for resources, the dangers of climate change, and a damaging illegal wildlife trade.   And in doing so we need to find new ways to help endangered species and habitats, as well as new approaches to conserve what we all value in the natural world.

2. Challenges

Conservationists know that wildlife cannot be left to fend for itself.  Animals need our protection and they depend on our investment to secure their future.  However, in the 21st Century the challenges we face in doing so pose a significant threat to the future survival of many species. 

Climate Change

Chief among the natural threats that wildlife face is climate change.  People here in India know the dangerous consequences of rising sea levels, soil erosion and flooding.   Warmer temperatures will bring faster melting of Himalayan glaciers with potentially catastrophic effects.  The changing patterns of monsoon rains and increased risk of drought will bring water scarcity and reduced agricultural productivity.  

The poorest people are being hit hardest and our wildlife is already feeling the effects.  Rising temperatures will lead to fragmented habitats that will affect species population and migration.   Coastal erosion and rising sea levels in India's Sundarban islands has reduced habitat for endangered tigers forcing them to prowl into villages in search of food.  

The loss of species such as snow leopards and tigers will accelerate.   A recent study carried out on tigers in the Sunderbans by the US unit of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) found that climate change is threatening to push the Royal Bengal Tiger to the verge of extinction in 60 years.  There are currently estimated to be around 400 tigers in Bangladesh but this population would significantly reduce as a direct fall-out of climate change and corresponding rises in sea level.

Biodiversity loss

Climate change is driving biodiversity loss on a massive scale.   The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment by the United Nations in 2005 estimated that humans were causing species extinction 1,000 times more rapidly than the "natural" rate of extinction typical of Earth's long-term history.   As the EU's Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas has written, this level of biodiversity loss is truly alarming.  We are, in his words, "erasing nature's hard drive without even knowing what data it contains."

In 1992, at the Rio Earth Summit, international leaders agreed that action was needed to address biodiversity decline and pursue sustainable development.  At the beginning of this century, European leaders committed to halt biodiversity loss by 2010 and UN Heads of State followed by agreeing to reduce significantly the rate of biodiversity decline to alleviate poverty and benefit all life on earth. 

However, wildlife experts tell us that those international targets will be missed.   The determination for action in the early 1990s has been replaced by growing alarm and pessimism.  Disturbingly, the UK Government now says that even though they signed up to the targets, they were ‘never realistically achievable'.   Last year's assessment of the Red List of Threatened Species found that a quarter of the world's mammal species are at risk of extinction.    Overall, global biodiversity has declined by almost a third in the last 25 years.  

Population growth and development

Nature is not only facing the threat of climate change, it is struggling under the weight of our unsustainable lifestyles.  WWF say that the UK is consuming three times our fair share of the world's natural resources.  This isn't just a feature of the developed world.  A recent report found that the economic and population growth of India means that the country now demands the bio-capacity of two Indias.  Over the last fifty years, the land and sea area needed to meet India's growing demand for resources has doubled.

A major threat comes from human development that erodes natural habitats.  India's forested cover has dropped dramatically over the past few decades due to urbanisation - from 33 per cent this has now shrunk to less than 12 per cent.  Infrastructural developments have led to the disappearance of otters from the many streams and rivers which were once major otter habitats.  In China, continued human development in panda regions is cutting off interaction between different groups, so that if habitat conditions do not improve some populations may die out within two or three generations.

Furthermore, population growth is going to drive additional development that will put pressure on habitat and landscape.  Our world must accommodate an extra 3 billion people by 2050 and new development is going to happen; not just as cities and towns expand, but in the drive to feed a world of 9 billion mouths where we will need greater agricultural production and more land-use change.


Threats have also arisen from the indirect effects of human development.  Pollution continues to threaten our marine world, as toxic waste spills into our rivers and seas.   Somewhere around 3 million tonnes of oil ends up in our oceans each year.  Pollution from many sources, including agricultural run-off and heavy metal concentration results in reduction in prey biomass like fish stocks, damaging the food chain for larger mammals.   The UN estimates that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic floating on every square mile of sea.  Around a million seabirds and 100,000 whales, seals and dolphins are thought to die from this plastic debris each year.  

Wildlife crime

Threats also come from the illegal actions of a callous minority, most explicitly in poaching and the illegal trade in endangered species.  The US State Department has estimated that the international illegal wildlife trade is worth over £6bn a year - the third biggest trade after drugs trafficking and arms. 

Despite international action through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and the threat of heavy sanctions for poachers and others involved in illicit trade, smuggling of wildlife parts remains a serious problem - whether it's wild rhino horns or ‘shahtoosh' shawls made from endangered Tibetan antelopes.   Tigers are at risk because of the continued threat of poaching.   According to reports, there were 40,000 tigers in India a century ago, but a recent government census found that India's tiger population fell drastically in the last six years to just 1,400, down from 3,600 in the last major survey in 2002.  Tiger poaching and the smuggling of tiger skins is now the second-most common crime along the Indo-China border after the illicit narcotics trade.

The illegal trade in traditional Chinese medicines is a worldwide problem and is present on our own streets in the UK.  Police in London last year seized 300 Chinese medicines from a shop which contained endangered species of animals and plants.  They have found plasters containing tiger or leopard bone and shampoo with bear bile  and ivory ornaments and skins from endangered animals.  These activities show no sign of abating.

Furthermore, conventional wildlife crime has been augmented by new threats in the modern world.  IFAW has described how the internet has enabled a boom in the illicit trade of endangered species and protected animal products.  Added to this is the growing awareness that there is now a confirmed link with organised crime, and even potentially terrorism. 

In Chad, Janjaweed militia from Sudan are killing elephants in their hundreds, and in Democratic Republic of Congo, a whole host of rebel groups have turned the country's dwindling elephant population into a new cash crop.  Across Africa, armed groups linked to civil wars are now profiting from the illegal ivory trade and using the proceeds of sales to fund their activities.  IFAW has described this as now the "greatest problem for the protection of elephants in Africa." Yesterday's immoral trade was ‘blood diamonds'.  Today's is blood ivory. 

We have also seen worrying reports about domestic separatist groups and Islamic militants based in Bangladesh.  Indian wildlife officials suspect them of sponsoring the poaching of tigers, rhinos, elephants and other vanishing breeds in the Kaziranga National Park to support terrorist activities.

3.  Protecting what is valuable

The poor state of our wildlife is alarming and the warning signs are not new.  So what do we need to do to help conserve our environment and protect wildlife from these natural challenges and man-made threats?   What can we do to arrest the alarming biodiversity decline, choke demand for wildlife crime, and do more to help the survival and recovery of the elephant and other precious species?  We need several approaches: strong leadership and international cooperation; effective regulation and tough enforcement; and social responsibility on the part of individuals and businesses. 

Strong leadership

First, we need strong leadership.  In the international sphere, we rely on those countries that care about conservation to help set the terms of the debate and raise public awareness.  You cannot do this if governments negotiate only in private and refuse to make their voice heard at critical times.  Government has a responsibility to take a lead on the international stage and in our actions at home. 

The recent film, End of the Line, focused our attention on the endangered bluefin tuna which needs urgent protection.  We need strong international leadership by the UK Government to persuade others that a ban on trade is needed urgently.  Likewise, where countries do make a virtue of taking a strong position and showing their commitment to conservation goals, they must have the courage to follow through on their pledges.  

President Sarkozy's commitment to support the inclusion of Bluefin tuna on the Annex 1 list of CITES was welcomed as a real advance for the campaign to protect this endangered species.  But for French delegates to then join with other Mediterranean States in voting against this was a major disappointment.  Actions like this do real damage to public support for the conservation measures we seek through the political process.

In contrast, the Tibetan Conservation Awareness Campaign, launched by the Dalai Lama, shows what can be achieved through political leadership.  It implored citizens to give up using illegal animal products, resulting in the public incineration of dresses lined with tiger and leopard furs, and a collapse in demand.

International cooperation

Second, we need international cooperation.  At a political level, where common positions can be reached - as was the case with ivory in 1989 - international cooperation is often the key to success.  But international cooperation should also be actively encouraged at an operational level too.

The UK's National Wildlife Crime Unit - established in 2006 - travelled to India last year and is now working closely with your new Wildlife Crime Control Bureau in the important tasks of intelligence sharing and training of officers, so that best practice in the detection and prosecution of wildlife crime can be shared. 

We need to encourage greater international partnerships between our enforcement agencies to ensure that regulations are upheld and criminals cannot exploit loopholes in the international trading markets.   This is especially true in the light of the growth of illicit trade in protected wildlife products on the internet, where national jurisdictions are competing with the scale and diversity of the web.

Effective regulation

Third, we need to ensure we have effective regulation that controls activities and sends the right signals; and we need to look at where current rules are inadequate.  One area where current regulations are not effective is in the ivory trade.  Twenty years ago, the British Conservative Government introduced a ban on ivory and shortly afterwards the international community followed.   The ban has achieved much, but last year's one off sales of ivory stockpiles - the second since the ban - sent completely the wrong signal to those profiting from the illicit ivory trade. 

UN Member states, regrettably including Britain, permitted the sale and allowed China to become an authorised purchaser, even though China has the largest market in illegal ivory.  It is little wonder that there are now reports that in parts of Africa there has been a surge in elephant poaching since the auction took place.  Last month, Kenyan authorities seized nearly 700kg of ivory destined for Bangkok and worth around £1 million.

The minister responsible has stated that the UK Government draws "a distinction between one-off sales of ivory which is legally held by governments, for the benefit of their wildlife conservation programmes, and a general return to commercial trading in ivory, where we are not convinced that current conditions will ensure proper protection for elephants."  However, there is a real danger that legal sales of ivory - however infrequent - provide cover for the ongoing illegal trade and stimulate demand for products which should not be sold in the first place.  Instead of allowing these auctions to go ahead on the nod, European governments should be taking a lead and demanding that all elephant ivory - from whatever source - is prohibited for trade.  We should be choking demand for ivory, not stoking it.

We also need to look at the regulations governing our use of biofuels and ensure that proper safeguards are in place to prevent the destruction of precious rainforests.   Last year British motorists used fuel that contained 27 million litres of palm oil from Indonesia and 64 million litres from Malaysia, which not only means we could be increasing greenhouse gases through deforestation but we are also contributing to the threatened survival of the orangutan.  

In the UK, we need new regulations that will help to restore our marine biodiversity to health with a robust and effective Marine Bill that provides for marine conservation zones that can provide the safe havens for sustainable recovery of marine wildlife.   And worldwide, we need to ensure that regulations governing marine conservation are not undermined by the actions of some States.  The southern hemisphere population of blue whales has fallen from 240,000 a century ago to under 2,000 today, and 2006 saw the largest whale slaughter for decades, with almost 2,000 whales killed by just three countries.  Iceland, Japan and Norway now kill almost four times as many whales as a decade ago. But in Japan, polling by MORI has shown that only 11 per cent of the population support whaling.  And this is why the moratorium on commercial whaling - that was introduced by the International Whaling Commission in 1986 - must be upheld.

Proper enforcement

Fourth, it is no use calling for international action to ban the hunting and trade in endangered species and ensure we have sustainable policies unless there is proper enforcement of the law.  That's why we need to get a grip on international wildlife crime.  

The numbers of orangutans illegally traded for the pet trade now exceeds that of the 1970s - around 2,000 have been confiscated since that time but only a few people have been prosecuted.   In the UK, the Home Office say that there has been a "considerable increase" in wildlife crime and, last year, 3,514 incidents were reported.

At present our National Wildlife Crime Unit can deploy just two specialist investigative officers to aid other police forces in wildlife crime cases.  With the exception of London's Metropolitan Police, often no proactive policing of illegal traded products is possible, and charging suspects requires tip offs from the public.  The detection and prosecution rates for illegal importation of ivory ornaments are poor, with intelligence suggesting that a lot slips through the net, not least because much of the illicit trade in animal products comes through the postal system via web auction sites in the US.  Once in the country, these products can be all too easily traded, with most police forces lacking the expertise to navigate the law, verify origin, and compile evidence for successful prosecutions.  Stopping the trade at the border is therefore crucial.

Under a Conservative Government, we will establish a new dedicated border police force to ensure that our borders are more secure against all types of crime, including wildlife smuggling.  As well as taking on the responsibility to search imported goods, the new agency will also have the powers to interdict mail so that shipments of illegal products purchased online can be tackled.  This will provide a more joined-up link with the Wildlife Crime Unit so that illegal imports can be seized and the perpetrators caught and punished.  Law enforcement officers must not hesitate to stop, search, detain and prosecute those involved in this damaging trade.

Social responsibility

Lastly, we need to ensure social responsibility.  Control of supply through international agreements, regulation and robust enforcement is necessary but not sufficient.  Demand must also be curtailed.

And for this to happen, individual responsibility is needed at home and abroad.

When we are buying clothing, ornaments or alternative medicines we must ensure that we are not contributing to the demise of endangered species.  Campaigns to change public attitudes can work.  The Wildlife Trust of India's "Say No to Shatoosh" campaign, by promoting alternatives successfully lowered demand for Shatoosh shawls, which threatened the endangered Tibetan antelope.

Despite China's 1993 ban in the trade of tiger parts, the black-market continues to thrive and demand is reportedly growing.  The predilection in countries such as China for animal products, such as tiger parts which are believed to enhance male libido or rhino horn, cannot go unchallenged.  Our respect for cultural traditions in other countries simply cannot extend to those which threaten endangered species and are rooted in absurd yet damaging superstition. 

Businesses, too, must show corporate social responsibility if we are to help protect our most endangered species.  Companies that now source more widely than ever before must have processes in place to audit thoroughly their supply chains to ensure they meet sustainable criteria - whether it is in the use of palm oil or fashion items.

4.  New incentives to conserve nature

Of course we must do more to protect endangered species, to regulate the trade in animal products, to detect and prosecute wildlife crime and to defend against the loss of the vital habitats upon which our most precious species depend.  But I want to end today by speaking about what more we can do to help protect our endangered species.   By doing more, I mean how we can begin to think of new ways to value our wildlife so we can start to invest in protecting our eco-system services, and the animals that live in them, so they have a more secure future.

Recently, the British conservationist Chris Packham sparked controversy by suggesting that we should think about letting the panda go.  He said that we are pouring millions of pounds into their conservation when there is no secure habitat for them.  Pandas have become emblematic of the fight for conservation and species decline and unsurprisingly his comments have divided conservation experts.   I'm emphatically not in favour letting pandas go, but I do think his wider argument about the real forces in conservation needs consideration.  He said:

"We're running a little, ill-respected and frequently ignored company whose managers continue to think that caring counts enough to change the world.  It's no longer even a quaint or nice idea, it's an embarrassing naivety.  It's why we are still waiting for old ladies to leave us their small fortunes instead of being taken seriously by global corporations.  It's why we are still playing with nature reserves and Pandas instead of planning to make a real difference, now when we could, and so desperately need to."

Politicians around the world urgently need to find ways of making the business of conservation work, and for that we need to start thinking seriously about incentives.  In 2005, Pavan Sukhdev, founder director of a "green accounting" project for India said:

"We are still struggling to find the ‘value of nature'.  Nature is the source of much value to us every day, and yet it mostly bypasses markets, escapes pricing and defies valuation.  This lack of valuation is, we are discovering, an underlying cause for the observed degradation of ecosystems and the loss of biodiversity."

Sukhdev argues, I believe rightly, that the challenges we face are so immense that business as usual is no longer an option and that our natural capital will not survive unless we begin to find new ways to value our environmental assets. 

Business as usual is not an option

Conventional regulation is a necessary tool, but it cannot always stand up against the forces working against it - especially when those forces are large, and can call upon the State for support.  For example, we have sometimes allowed taxation and subsidies to work against our natural capital, eroding what would otherwise be a sustainable resource. 

The European Union's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) was designed to manage the competing interests of Member States in the use of a vital shared resource, but it did not adequately penalise those who damaged the environment.  Through constant subsidies to expand and modernise fishing fleets, it has indirectly led to massive and sustained over-fishing.  Along with the grotesque practice of discards, this has been a major driver of the collapse in cod and other fish stocks as well as endangered species like Bluefin tuna in European waters.

The CFP is an example of where man-made policy has ascribed an artificially low value to natural assets that has led to over-fishing and the serious depletion of our marine resources.  This is the direct result of skewed incentives that have taken no account of sustainability.   We need incentives as well as regulation to protect our environment, but they must be market incentives to conserve, not subsidies to plunder.

Incentives to conserve

So we need new incentives to encourage conservation, for instance to encourage fishermen to use sustainable gear; create wildlife corridors to help species adapt to development and climate change; or help local communities invest in biodiversity when development takes place, through mechanisms like conservation credits, so that new habitat can be created on the back of development.  Global corporations should be encouraged to play their part in funding these incentives.  And we need to make it more profitable to save our valued species than for people to profit from their death.  That means giving local people real financial incentives to help preserve biodiversity.

Education and awareness is a key part of that process.  Eco-tourism is one of the fastest-growing forms of tourism around the world and can play a crucial role in this.  Yesterday I met representatives of the Manas Maozigendri Ecotourism Society who are literally funding poachers to become gamekeepers.  80 former poachers in the Manas National Park see greater value in being employed as conservation guards than in being poachers.  Changing local incentives has seen an increase in wildlife and tourism.

In Madagascar, villagers are being paid to plant trees on eroded land.  And the rainforests of countries like Brazil could be protected through a new strategy of ‘avoided deforestation', where a price is placed on the carbon locked in the forests and countries are allowed to trade credits in the international market, incentivising conservation and benefiting both wildlife and the climate.  We would like to see this approach extended and an agreement on rainforest protection reached as part of the Copenhagen negotiations.

We need to enlist the power of the market to give every agent - from the local supplier to the global corporation - real financial incentives to conserve what is valuable.  We are still at the very early stages of exploring what this approach could mean for the protection of vital species and habitats.  However, we should not shy away from this new approach if it can be shown to provide new ways to defend our natural capital from over-exploitation.

5.  Conclusion

Biodiversity decline, pollution, development and wildlife crime present clear and present dangers to the health of our wildlife.  And climate change threatens the very health of our ecosystems and the life they support.  Agreement in Copenhagen to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could not be more urgent.  The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment found that biodiversity loss and declining ecosystem services are contributing to worsening health, food insecurity, economic loss, and poorer quality of life.   The survival of endangered species and health of our biodiversity is therefore essential for our environmental and economic sustainability.  

Conservationists will continue to depend on governments to create effective regulation and pursue robust enforcement to ensure that illegal activity is deterred.  I have set out where we need government to do more.  We must have strong and consistent leadership from countries like Britain and India that raises the profile of these issues and leads the call for change.  We need international cooperation to set proper standards.   And we need effective regulation that is properly enforced, to ensure that agreements lead to genuine improvement.

But we cannot rely completely on such actions to protect endangered species and habitats, even if they could all be realised internationally.  Our ecosystems are worth trillions of pounds.  We must find ways of valuing them or they will become further degraded.  With a market approach to eco-system services, conservationists can look forward to new ways of supporting wildlife that are based on ascribing a true value to biodiversity. 

If we can achieve that, then communities, corporations and governments can start to pull in the same direction, with new incentives to conserve our wildlife and the precious habitats that sustain life.  Of course, markets are only a means, not an end.  Ultimately our collective determination to do more to save wildlife and habitats will come from an appreciation of both the beauty and innate value of nature, and the importance of biodiversity in sustaining the planet.  As Prince Charles recently remarked in his Dimbleby Lecture:

"We must remember that the ultimate source of all economic capital is Nature's capital.  The true wealth of all nations comes from clean rivers, healthy soil and, most importantly of all, a rich biodiversity of life"

Thank you.

Nick Herbert