As the British Prime Minister met the Chinese Premier in the Great Hall of the People on Monday, so many were the metaphorical elephants in the room that the tragic fate of the world’s largest land mammal scarcely crossed anyone’s mind.
As David Cameron tours China over the next two days, with a plane load of British businessmen, seeking to bolster trade between the two nations, those who seek to make things difficult for him will do so with questions over China’s embarrassing record over human rights. It is a country that goes to great lengths to do its dirty laundry in private, but the footprint left by its unprecedented economic rise is stamped all over the world’s poorest continent.
The epidemic of elephant slaughter now consuming Africa is resurgent, and more potent than it has ever been, but it would not be an overstatement to claim that the stretching row of Chinese politicians that faced up to their British counterparts along the famous desks of the Great Hall represents the front line in the war on ivory.
In Africa, where the world’s most majestic animals live alongside the poorest people, it is burgeoning Chinese demand that daily raises the price on the head of the African elephant.
Among Mr Cameron’s first engagements was to smile for the cameras as he opened Beijing’s new Land Rover academy. The luxury goods market in the country is growing just as fast as the bank accounts of China’s burgeoning middle classes. But for the Chinese tourists of the future, who will drive around the African savannah in the British made vehicles, one of the major draws is rapidly disappearing, and only the Chinese themselves are empowered to do anything about it.
But Britain too, has elephant blood on its hands. In 2008, in spite of dire warnings of the consequences, this country voted in favour of the decision to allow China to buy ivory legally.
Britain’s backing for the 2008 decision, which gave a whole new impetus to the Chinese demand for ivory now driving the uncontrolled elephant poaching across the African continent, was “outrageous”, says Allan Thornton of the Environmental Investigation Agency, writing in today’s Independent.
Mr Thornton, whose EIA provided much of the evidence for the original UN ivory trade ban in 1989, accuses the Government of Gordon Brown of making a “terrible blunder” in backing the vote in the standing committee of Cites, the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species, the UN body that regulates the wildlife trade.
He says that the latest estimate, from the University of Washington, shows that as many as 52,000 elephants may now be killed annually in Africa - far above the currently accepted estimate of about 36,000.
It is becoming clear that the unconstrained slaughter is the one of the greatest wildlife crises the world has ever seen and Mr Thornton says that because of its ill-advised action five years ago – which “people seem to have forgotten” – Britain now has a special responsibility to take action to combat it.
“Many environmental and conservation groups, including my own, warned that the consequences would be catastrophic,” he writes.
“We predicted that giving China legal ivory imports would mean a death sentence for many of Africa’s elephants as it would lead to massive increase in poaching to satisfy the new Chinese demand. All this has sadly come to pass.”
It was in July 2008 that China was given permission to take part in a ‘one-off’ sale of a huge amount of legal ivory auctioned by four southern African countries, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe, whose elephant populations were regarded at the time as relatively healthy and well-managed.
The stockpile of 108 tonnes was sold in the following November to buyers from China and Japan.
At an earlier such legal sale in 1999, only Japan was deemed to have enough safeguards against illegal trading to be allowed to bid, and China, with the largest black market in ivory in the world, was excluded.
In 2008 the Chinese claimed they had tightened up their trading enforcement procedures and sought permission to take part in the new sale, but conservationists warned that if they did, this would ramp up demand, make the laundering of illegal ivory into the market much easier, and lead to a major increase in elephant poaching across Africa. All this has indeed happened.
More than 150 MPs of all parties signed a cross-party motion calling for the Government not to vote for China to be given a licence to trade. In spite of this, Britain backed the Chinese and voted to help ensure that they were given licensed buyer status.
The politician directly responsible was Joan Ruddock, the Wildlife Minister at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who publicly defended the decision. “China has satisfied the Cites Standing Committee that it has established robust controls to manage the legally stockpiled ivory to ensure it is not exported from and is effectively monitored within China,” she said.
However, most observers were convinced that a decision that would directly affect Britain’s relations with China could not possibly be taken by a junior minister, and it was widely assumed that Gordon Brown, as Prime Minister, had signed it off personally.
It was met with ferocious criticism from conservationists and politicians. The Green MP Caroline Lucas, then an MEP, called the vote “a dark and irrevocable stain on the UK's wildlife conservation record overseas”.
Allan Thornton writes that it is for Britain now to make up for its “terrible blunder” by leading the fight against the poaching crisis.
A major international summit on the issue is to be held in London in February, jointly hosted by David Cameron, with the Prince of Wales and Prince William.
(Additional reporting by Tom Peck)