International Wildlife Crime

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered international wildlife crime.

Four years ago, I visited the Kaziranga national park in Assam, north-east India with the International Fund for Animal Welfare. The park is home to two thirds of the world's population of one-horned rhinoceroses. Extinct in some parts of the sub-continent, there are now fewer than 3,000 of these animals left on the planet. But in the short space of time since I visited Kaziranga, more than 75 rhinos have been killed by poachers, a rate that has risen such that last year saw the highest number of killings in more than two decades.

The park is a UN world heritage site and an area where those animals are protected. The poaching is undoubtedly driven by the illegal trade in wild animal parts, which has never been more serious. The effects are not just catastrophic for wild animal populations, some of which are now at real risk. This hideous trade impacts 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 $19 billion a year.

Next week, the Government will host the London conference on the illegal wildlife trade. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary for working hard to get these issues on the international agenda and securing the attendance of high-level delegates from so many Governments, including that of China. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has also taken a strong interest in these issues.

The conference will focus on protecting three of the most iconic species on our planet-elephants, tigers and rhinos-all of which have seen disastrous declines in numbers in recent years. Three of the nine known sub-species of tiger became extinct during the 1980s and there may be just 3,200 left in the world. At least 10,000 are needed to secure the tiger's long-term future, but that is impossible while they are killed for their organs and hides and their habitats continue to be damaged. Some 1,000 rhinos were killed illegally last year in South Africa alone, up from just 13 in 2007. Rhinos had been a big conservation success story in recent years, but poaching on that scale is putting their future in jeopardy. In 1979, there were estimated to be 1.3 million wild elephants in Africa: now, there are fewer than 400,000. In the last three years, elephant poaching levels in Africa have exceeded 5% of the total population, and that is horribly significant because it is a tipping point: killings are now outpacing the animals' birth rate.

Other species are being heavily exploited by the illegal trade for traditional medicine, with turtles and seahorses harvested for food, medicine and decorative purposes, despite being protected, and 100 million sharks killed every year for their fins to be used in soup, despite an international agreement to curb that just last year. How have we got here? How have we come from an international focus on the importance of species conservation in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, which saw the abolition of the ivory trade and an escalation in the number of states joining the convention on international trade in endangered species, to a situation where iconic species literally face extinction?

The international community failed to respond swiftly enough when these precipitous declines began. When we did respond, it was sometimes in the wrong way, such as when sales of ivory stockpiles were authorised in a misguided attempt to provide resources for conservation and satisfy demand for the product-an issue to which I will return in my speech.

The killing of endangered species and the sale of their parts is not just bad news for the animals themselves: it also has a devastating impact on communities. It breaks down sustainable development opportunities such as animal-related tourism, and it leaves communities at the mercy of criminal gangs. The impact of poaching can be as damaging to fragile communities as disease. New evidence has shown that countries with the highest incidences of child mortality also have the highest incidences of elephant poaching. Poverty and poor governance are the enabling factors for poaching. As MIKE- Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants-the United Nations-backed programme for monitoring the illegal killing of elephants, has observed, if local communities can derive little value in animals such as elephants, but only bear the costs in terms of crop damage, injury or death, incentives for conservation are lost.

Successful programmes to protect animals must find a way to realise their value, including to local communities, for instance through eco-tourism. For some, the idea of placing an economic value on wildlife is anathema. When I spoke to the Wildlife Trust of India, one member of the audience responded that their tigers were beyond value. In one sense, of course, we all see magnificent wildlife as priceless, but actually poachers put a very precise monetary value on these animals, and for so long as we value them less, the poaching will continue.

The tables can be turned, however. In India I met representatives of an eco-tourism society who are literally funding poachers to become gamekeepers. Some 80 former poachers in the Manas national park now see greater value in being employed as conservation guards than in being poachers, as in their previous life.

In recognition of the links between the availability of natural resources and economic development, part of the Government's welcome commitment of £10 million of funding to tackle the illegal wildlife trade announced last December has been provided by the Department for International Development, but this is not aid for animals; it is aid for people.

The right principle must be to enable and support local action to conserve wildlife. Next week's summit must consider whether the resources directed at programmes like the African elephant action plan will be sufficient. There must be a combination of resources, international leadership-as has been shown by the UK and by President Obama in the US, who last year issued an Executive order to combat wildlife trafficking-and effective monitoring of action. All three of these components matter.

The illegal trade in wildlife has another impact: crime-and serious crime, too. In 2009 I was invited to address the Wildlife Trust of India in Delhi where I drew attention to the risk that blood ivory would replace blood diamonds as a source of revenue for criminal gangs and militias. As the Foreign Secretary warned this week, there is evidence to suggest that the trade in ivory is funding terrorism. Al-Shabaab, whose attack on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi led to the death of 62 people, may have funded that operation with illegally obtained ivory sold on the black market to buy arms, and with the price of rhino horn on the black market now estimated at $100,000 a kilo, which is more than the price of gold or platinum, it is no surprise that the most serious criminal organisations are turning to poaching to finance their activities.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I have been listening to my right hon. Friend's speech, and it seems to me that the losses from poaching have got so immense now that Governments must have some involvement in this, and they may well be talking with forked tongue: on the one hand condemning it, while on the other hand allowing it to occur. Would my right hon. Friend care to comment on that?

Nick Herbert: That is an interesting intervention, but I will let the Minister reply to it, if I may.

Tackling this illegal trade can no longer be seen as a low priority. That is why I was proud that the Conservative party's manifesto promised action through border policing, and this important commitment fed through to the Government's new serious organised crime strategy, which explicitly mentions wildlife crime. This prioritisation of organised crime is new and it has been welcomed by WWF, and it is essential that it is turned into effective action.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight these connections, but he must also agree that we must put our own house in order. Is he aware that hundreds of thousands of songbirds are being killed on British sovereign territory in Cyprus, with the Ministry of Defence apparently turning a blind eye to the industrial-scale planting of acacia bushes to facilitate this, and will he join me in demanding that the MOD put a stop to this as soon as possible since it is organised crime on British sovereign territory?

Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend has made his point forcefully.

Enforcement and conservation measures, however well resourced, will never be sufficient while there is a demand for animal parts. In both the medicine and the ivory trade, seeking a reduction is not enough. As Will Travers of the Born Free Foundation has said, we need to be calling for not a reduction, but the eradication of the trade.

We must refuse to allow cultural sensitivities to prevent us tackling so-called traditional "medicine" that does so much to fuel the illegal wildlife trade. Spurious health claims about the efficacy of rhino horn as a cure for everything from hangovers to cancer led directly to the extinction of the Javan rhino two years ago and the huge spike in killings of the African rhino. Education programmes to challenge the myth of traditional remedies are vital, and so is leadership by Governments.

Seeking an eradication is entirely incompatible with farming wild animals such as rhinos, as some have suggested, so that their parts can be sold. We must choke demand; not stoke it. That is why there should be a total ban on further ivory sales. As shadow Environment Secretary, I strongly opposed the sale of stockpiles, proposed by Tanzania and Zambia, in 2010. We took that decision because the 2008 sales were a complete failure. Far from reducing poaching, as some thought that they might, the sales led to a huge spike in killings. A report the next year showed that 38,000 elephants were then being poached a year, almost three time the level before the sales. In Sierra Leone, for example, the entire elephant herd was destroyed by poachers in the country's only national park.

The 2008 sales were also significant in that they allowed China to participate for the first time. It purchased more than 105 tonnes of ivory, flooding the market with cheap "legitimate" ivory and stoking a demand that is now being met with poached illegal ivory. The Chinese Government's destruction of six tonnes last month was a welcome change of emphasis, but that still leaves 99 tonnes unaccounted for. It must be a goal of next week's conference and international agreement that there are no sales of ivory, and all stockpiles are destroyed.

In conclusion, action to oppose the illegal trade in wild animal parts is vital to conserve endangered species, to develop communities in Asia and Africa and to cut off an important source of funding to criminal and terrorist groups. I will never forget, in Kaziranga, hearing the electrifying roar of a tiger in the wild, yet seeing the sorry fate of a captive tiger orphaned by poachers. It would be a tragedy if magnificent animals such as those were lost from the wild. Next week's conference offers a real chance to prevent that from happening.