‘If we fail, the African forest elephant will blink out within our lifetimes’

As world leaders descend on London for the largest ever conference on the illegal wildlife trade, we examine the efforts being made to end illegal poaching

An estimated 100 elephants will be killed across Africa today. Poached, in all likelihood, in front of their families. Their tusks ripped off to meet the global greed for ivory.

The species are in crisis. Elephant populations in some parts of Africa could be wiped out in as little as five years’ time. But today is also the day when world leaders, heads of state, and delegates from around 50 countries will descend on London for the world’s largest ever conference on the illegal wildlife trade with the aim of changing this.

The event, hosted by the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and attended by the Prince of Wales, will hear that as many as 50,000 elephants are being poached each year to satisfy the booming ivory market, driven largely by China. At least 45 tons of ivory were seized in 2013, believed to be the biggest annual haul in a quarter of a century. Last year was the worst on record for rhino poaching in South Africa, with 1,004 animals killed, a 50 per cent increase on 2012. There are now less than 3,500 wild tigers left worldwide.

Crucially, today’s conference – held at Lancaster House in London – will be attended by a delegation from China, as well as at least four African head of state, the presidents of Tanzania, Chad, Gabon, and Botswana. They will join some of the world’s most powerful people in a bid to find solutions to the spiralling trade, focusing on strengthening law enforcement and the criminal justice system, reducing demand for illegal wildlife products and supporting sustainable livelihoods for affected communities.

Speaking at a reception last night, Mr Hague said: “I believe that tonight we are on the brink of a crucial global turning point in the struggle against wildlife trafficking. We all know that we are at the 11th hour, perhaps even at a quarter to midnight, in the race to prevent the illegal wildlife trade from obliterating some of the most remarkable species in the world; including tigers, elephants, rhinos and orang-utans.

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“Many of us feel passionately strongly about this. It would be an utter tragedy if in our lifetimes these species were lost altogether because of human ignorance and greed.”

The British Government “has a responsibility to push for an international action plan to urgently tackle this trade,” Labour leader Ed Miliband told The Independent. “Such a plan must include a comprehensive agreement to stop the sale of stockpiles of products like ivory, as well as measures to reduce demand for them and incentivise communities in desperately poor parts of the world to protect rather than poach.

Read more: US announces new restrictions on ‘legal’ ivory trade
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Editorial: Act now on poaching

“This is a multibillion pound business that not only symbolises the damage being wreaked to our planet’s environment and diversity but has also fuelled organised crime and destabilised the security of entire regions.”

Experts have described the £12bn illegal wildlife trade as “one of the most pressing conservation issues of our time.” It amounts to the world’s fourth biggest illegal trade after narcotics, human trafficking and counterfeiting. Criminal syndicates are wreaking havoc across Africa as they commission the mass slaughter of animals.

Their trade has been linked to drug trafficking and terrorism. More than 1,000 rangers have lost their lives trying to stop the poachers. Over the past few months, The Independent and its sister titles have ran a campaign to save Africa’s elephants and draw people’s attention to the trade in illegal wildlife. Thanks to our readers, it has been our most successful appeal yet; we have raised around £430,000 for Kenyan-based charity Save the Giants.

Our petition calls for world leaders to commit to better training and resources for rangers; to provide better education in places such as Asia, where consumer demand is driving up poaching; to stamp down on corruption and implement laws against those involved in the trade; to help local communities develop sustainable livelihoods; and to uphold the ban on the international trade in ivory.

A coalition of the world’s most influential conservationists, led by the Duke of Cambridge, launched an unprecedented global initiative to tackle the illegal wildlife trade at the Zoological Society of London’s International Wildlife Trafficking Symposium yesterday.

United for Wildlife – made up of Conservation International, Fauna & Flora, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, The Nature Conservancy, The Royal Foundation, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London – pledged to use their resources to “restore wildlife populations to healthy levels” and combat the “insidious impact” of the illegal wildlife trade.

“The forces that are currently destroying some of the world’s most endangered species are sophisticated and powerful, but this week we are seeing the creation of an equally powerful alliance, coming together to help fight them,” said Prince William, who is leading the coalition. “The commitments set out today will begin to address the challenges of protection, enforcement and demand reduction. We will use our combined resources to ensure they succeed.”

William Hague supports our campaign

The tragic medicinal myth which condemns hundreds of rhino to death every year

The launch came as new data reveals that 65 per cent of forest elephants in central Africa were killed between 2002 and 2013. The elephants, from five countries, are being poached for their ivory at a rate of at least 60 a day or one every 20 minutes, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society. Dr John Robinson, its chief conservation officer, warned that if the London commitments fail “ the African forest elephant will blink out in our lifetimes.”

For Kenyan scientist Dr Paula Kahumbu, executive director of charity WildlifeDirect, the conference must show its willingness to do things differently. This isn’t just a conservation crisis and it shouldn’t just be conservation organisations involved.”

William Hague agrees. “Unlike in previous years I believe that this should be a foreign policy priority,” he told The Independent. “If we defeat this trade then we solve a whole host of other economic and social problems at the same time. I hope today’s conference will provide the boost we need to make this dream a reality.”


Watch Prince William speaks out against illegal hunting

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