Act now on poaching: Today’s high-level conference on wildlife crime is welcome. But governments must act as well as talk

The elephant is not the only rare species to be threatened by a wave of poaching that is increasingly linked to global organised crime

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The Independent Online

Thanks to Independent readers, the campaign to save Africa’s wild elephants from extinction is making real progress. Through your generosity, £450,000 has been raised – enough, according to the charity that is the beneficiary of the appeal, appreciably to tilt the balance. “I truly believe that 2014 will be the year the tide turned for elephants, forever,” notes Dr Max Graham, who runs Space for Giants. “We have already experienced a change on the ground in northern Kenya since Christmas.”

Such efforts cannot come too soon. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were an estimated 10 million elephants in Africa. But in the years since, their habitat has been squeezed by steadily expanding human activities; and the recent surge in demand for ivory in fast-growing Asian countries has led to an unprecedented spike in poaching. The result is that there are now barely half a million wild elephants left and they continue to be killed at an appalling rate; some 36,000 of them last year alone. Without action, experts fear this noble creature could be extinct in Africa within as little as a decade.

But the elephant is not the only rare species to be threatened by a wave of poaching that is increasingly linked to global organised crime. Demand for rhino horn is having a similarly devastating effect on rhino populations, with more than 1,000 animals killed in South Africa last year. Big cats, especially in Asia, are also in peril. Of six remaining sub-species of tiger, all are endangered, two of them critically so.

Against such a backdrop, the high-profile conference starting in London today – and given a fillip by outspoken royal backing – is to be warmly welcomed. As world leaders and heads of state gather, the issue of wildlife crime is – rightly – as high up the agenda as it has ever been. But it is not enough for generous individuals to donate money and for governments and experts to talk. What is needed now, more desperately than ever, is co-ordinated action.

There is no mystery as to what needs to be done. First, better training must be provided for the rangers who are the first line of defence against poaching and who, in current circumstances, are too often losing their lives. But it is also important to approach the problem from the demand as well as the supply side. That means instituting a full-scale education programme, in Asia in particular, to ensure that potential consumers are better informed about the gruesome, and devastating, reality behind their acquisitions.

Then there is the business itself to consider. Concerted effort must be made not only to uphold the existing global ban on trade in ivory but also to tackle the endemic corruption that greases the entire chain of illegal activity from poacher to purchaser. Finally, both money and thought must go into helping communities in poaching hotspots to develop sustainable livelihoods that offer a real alternative.

A challenge? Certainly. But not one of these requirements is an impossible one. What is needed, though, is a continuing focus at the highest levels. And if the bar is high, the stakes are even more so. Do nothing, and some of Earth’s most glorious and elusive creatures will be lost forever. Time is running out.