The good news is that the illegal killing of some of the world’s most endangered mammals will top the agenda at next week’s conservation summit. But there the good news ends. Attempts to control poaching are failing, rhino and elephant numbers across Africa are being devastated, and unless the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) can galvanise global action some populations of these precious animals could be wiped out.
Until recently, efforts to tackle poaching had made some progress. But soaring demand has led to soaring prices. Weight for weight, rhino horn is now more expensive than gold. A single animal can be worth more than a quarter of a million dollars. Is it any wonder that rhino poaching has shot up a staggering fiftyfold in just five years? Meanwhile, global seizures of illegal ivory are also at an all-time high.
There are two problems here, both requiring the same solution. The first is in Vietnam, where the public appetite for rhino has surged thanks to urban myths about its medicinal properties. The second is in China, where the taste for ivory among China’s expanding middle class far outstrips the country’s limited legal supplies. In both cases, the government must act. In Vietnam, that means education programmes spelling out that rhino horn is, chemically, no different from human fingernails. It also means cracking down on trade in rhino horn. Similarly, it is up to Beijing to stamp out China’s vast black market in ivory.
Such are the recommendations to be set out at next week’s Cites conference. It must be hoped that the message gets through. More direct pressure can be applied, through trade sanctions on tropical timber, say. But it must also be hoped such measures are not necessary. Nor is there any time to waste. That Britain’s Wildlife minister points the finger publicly at China and Vietnam emphasises the urgency of the situation. That rhinos were only discovered in Vietnam in 1988, and were extinct there by 2011, must surely focus minds on its gravity.