London conference 2014: The world wakes up at elephants' eleventh hour

Delegates from about 50 countries will meet in London this week to try to end the slaughter that feeds the illegal market in ivory and rhino horn

Share

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."

China's chance

"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."

Lucrative trade

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.

 


Watch the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge urge people to support organisation working to stop the illegal wildlife trade

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Matthew Norman
Shirley Shackleton, wife of late journalist Gregory Shackleton, sits next to the grave of the 'Balibo Five' in Jakarta, in 2010  

Letter from Asia: The battle for the truth behind five journalists’ deaths in Indonesia

Andrew Buncombe
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London