The world has a real chance this week to halt the soaring slaughter of African elephants, rhinos and other animals. Over the past five years this has built up to an unprecedented wildlife crisis, threatening not only the existence of iconic species but the very stability of the countries involved.
A major international conference in London is bringing together all the key states involved in the illegal wildlife trade. Profits are now so big – up to $19bn (£11.6bn) annually – that organised crime gangs, rebel militias and even terrorist organisations are being drawn in, pushing the killing to ever greater heights and posing grave new problems of national and international security.
Across Africa, as many as 50,000 elephants are being shot down every year to satisfy the booming ivory market, in China above all; while rhinos are being slaughtered in record numbers for their horn, believed in some Asian countries such as Vietnam – entirely erroneously – to have important medical properties. The poaching rates mean that both animals are on the slope to extinction. Meanwhile, more than 1,000 wildlife rangers have been killed trying to stop the poachers.
The unparalleled butchery, which has been the subject of the campaign in The Independent and The Independent on Sunday over the past two months, has seemed during the last year to be entirely out of control, but this week's conference will seek an international political commitment to end it.
The meeting is the brainchild of the Prince of Wales and his son William, the Duke of Cambridge, and is being hosted by the British government at Lancaster House in London on Thursday. It will be attended by high-level delegations from about 50 countries, with, crucially, a delegation from China, whose presence was not assured until recently. At least four African heads of state will be attending: the presidents of Chad, Gabon, Botswana and Tanzania.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, there will be a preliminary scientific symposium at the Zoological Society of London, in Regent's Park, involving the world's largest wildlife conservation charities, which have been brought together in a special alliance, named United for Wildlife, by the Duke of Cambridge.
Today Prince Charles and Prince William are releasing a video urging people all around the world to come together to support the anti-wildlife-trade cause. "Despite the terrible crisis that we now face, we both continue to be optimistic that the tide can be reversed," Prince William says in the film.
"We have to be the generation that stopped the illegal wildlife trade, and secured the future of these magnificent animals and their habitats, for, if we fail, it will be too late."
The Government, with the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, leading the way, wants a strong declaration of intent to act from the countries involved. It will also seek to make the conference an annual event to check progress, which would be a major step forward. Currently, the United Nations wildlife trade enforcement body, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), meets in full only once every three years.
UK ministers have already promised £10m in funding to back the approach, which will focus on three areas: strengthening law enforcement and the criminal justice system; supporting the development of sustainable livelihoods for communities affected by poaching; and reducing demand for illegal wildlife products.
This last factor is the crux of the whole matter. All eyes will be on the Chinese, as many conservationists believe that the only way to end the poaching crisis effectively is for China to abolish its ivory market – that is, not just get rid of illegal ivory but outlaw the sale of ivory altogether.
"There's no point even talking about elephant killing if you don't address the problem of China," said the Conservative MP and former editor of The Ecologist magazine, Zac Goldsmith, who has been a prominent campaigner against the ivory trade.
"And the reality is that focusing on the illegal stuff is a side-show. The real issue is the legal ivory.
"So long as there's a legal trade, it will be possible to disguise the illegal trade, allowing it flourish. You just have to look at the map. The demand for ivory from China alone massively exceeds supply – in other words, the number of elephants. It's off the scale. So, unless you deal with the legal stuff, you can't hope to stop the illegal stuff; and unless you do that, the elephants are going to be gone within 10 to 15 years. It's now or never, really. "
Another long-time elephant campaigner, Will Travers, president of the Born Free Foundation, makes exactly the same point. "The answer is, close down the legal ivory market in China," he said. "End the government-licensed carving factories. Get rid of the remains of the legal stockpile that they have been drip-feeding into the market, thereby sustaining the trade. Just get rid of it. This is their opportunity to really step up, and they would be applauded universally for doing so."
Philip Mansbridge, chief executive of the charity Care for the Wild, said yesterday: "We're at crisis point for key species, so this summit is vital and timely. But we need action, not just words: the UK should commit 0.5 per cent of its foreign aid budget annually. We must support a range states in defending the animals, and we need China to outlaw ivory. Now."
"Imagine," says Will Travers, president of the animal rescue and conservation charity the Born Free Foundation, "if Africans were creeping over to China and poaching pandas, because they thought that wearing panda skin, or putting a piece of panda round your neck in a bag, was going to bring you great good fortune. The Chinese would be incandescent.
"It's already the death penalty for killing pandas in China. So I think it's important that the Chinese understand what losing elephants means to Africa and to Africans. They are the iconic species, along with the lions, for Africa."
Mr Travers's foundation came out of the conservation work his actor parents Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna undertook after they starred in the 1966 film Born Free, about British couple George and Joy Adamson releasing to the wild in Kenya the orphan lion cub they had raised, Elsa.
And, like many conservationists, he lays the blame for the current poaching crisis squarely at the door of China and its ivory market.
"Africa and its wildlife are being hammered by trade to the Far East and to China in particular," he said.
"But now the Chinese have the opportunity, almost in one fell swoop, to remove some of the ongoing and relentless criticism they face in relation to Africa and Africa's natural resources.
"They will become the economic powerhouse of the world within the next 10 years, and with that position comes enormous responsibility.
"They can demonstrate that responsibility by closing down their ivory market. That would show international leadership, but it would also show the respect that Africa is due."
Mr Travers added: "This is a true crisis for wildlife. If we have not got it within our capacity and within our humanity to save and protect elephants, rhinos, tigers and lions, and the great apes, then nothing is safe, because nothing can capture our imagination and speak to our souls like those species. If we can't protect those, nothing is safe – it's open season on everything else."
Nobody knows precisely how many elephants are being killed annually across Africa's vastness, but there is no doubt that it is in the tens of thousands. The most frequent estimates suggest it is in the range of 25,000 to 36,000 a year, but one recent estimate by Dr Sam Wasser, head of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, worked out from the number of illegally traded tusks being seized, suggests the annual figure may be as high as 52,000.
There are, however, precise figures for the explosion in poaching of South Africa's rhinos. In 2007, 13 animals were killed; in 2008, the figure was 83; in 2009, it was 122; in 2010, it was 333; in 2011, it was 448; in 2012, it was 668; and last year it was 1,004.
The reason is simple: in Vietnam, where it is erroneously seen as a valuable medicine, rhino horn can be traded at an astonishing $65,000 (£40,000) per kilo. It is now worth more than gold and platinum, and is more valuable on the black market than diamonds or cocaine.
As for ivory, the price is now up to $3,000 a kilo, so a typical elephant could bring a poacher $30,000.
Why the upsurge?
An epidemic of elephant poaching to supply the ivory market in the late 1980s was brought to a halt in 1989 when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) banned the worldwide trade in ivory products.
Poaching levels then dropped throughout the 1990s; but picked up again in the mid-2000s, and according to a United Nations report published last December, they have "jumped dramatically from 2009".
Many observers think the upturn was directly related to the fact that in July 2008 China was given permission, for the first time, to take part in a "one-off" legal sale of 108 tonnes of ivory from four southern African countries – South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe – whose elephant populations were regarded at the time as relatively healthy and well-managed.
At the time, conservationists, more than 150 MPs and The Independent – with its entire front page – warned that this would have dire consequences, but Britain nevertheless voted in favour of the move in the Cites Standing Committee.
It was widely assumed that the then-Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, insisted on the vote because he did not wish to risk upsetting the economically influential Chinese.
Photojournalist Kate Brooks' images reveal elephants' plight
Photojournalist Kate Brooks' images reveal elephants' plight
1/6 An orphaned baby elephant is fed by a ranger
2/6 The remains of a poisoned elephant
3/6 Kenyan rangers patrol for poachers
4/6 One of the boxes of seized ivory items
5/6 Seized tiger heads at the National Wildlife Property Repository
6/6 Kenya Police Reserve head out on their daily patrol for poachers