World leaders must take bold, transformative measures to protect threatened species

Will Travers, Executive President of The Born Free Foundation, on the urgent need for a global response to end wildlife crime

Tuesday 07 September 2021 11:56
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<p>With declining and severely fragmented populations, gorillas are teetering towards the brink of extinction</p>

With declining and severely fragmented populations, gorillas are teetering towards the brink of extinction

In 1973, when I was 15 years old, there were less than 4 billion people on the planet. The Iron and Bamboo Curtains cut huge swathes of the world off from each other. Unfettered global trade was years away.

However, in that year, a group of 80 nations recognised that, if left unchecked, the pressures on wildlife from escalating human populations and consumption patterns would only grow, and that something needed to be put in place to make sure that international trade in wildlife and wildlife products wouldn’t threaten species survival. In response CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) was born.

Roll forward nearly 50 years. The world has nearly 8 billion people - set to rise to almost 11 billion by 2050 - and 183 countries are now signatories to CITES, the treaty which has helped ensure that no species in legal international trade has become extinct.

But that is only part of the story. The Convention now lists over 35,000 species of wild animals and plants, the great majority of which (live or in ‘bits’) are flogged round the world. A small subset, around 1,000, are now banned from being commercially traded internationally as their future hangs in the balance – think elephants and ivory tusks, rhinos and their horns, tigers and their skins, pangolins and their scales.

But that does not mean any of these species – or for that matter the many more species that are not even listed by CITES – are safe. Far from it.

Trillions of dollars’ worth of wildlife products are legally traded each year, and the multi-billion-dollar illegal wildlife trade - fuelled by greed - means elephants, tigers, rhino, pangolins, lions and more are still poached in their hundreds of thousands.

National laws which should uphold the protection of threatened species can, perversely, undermine their security. Recent examples include the decision by the Mexican authorities to abandon the last vestiges of protection for the vaquita porpoise, the world’s most endangered cetacean with less than 30 thought to remain in the wild, caving to the relentless pressure from the ruthless gangs who pursue a fish call the totoaba for its swim bladder – used in Asian medicinal markets – and who catch and kill vaquita in the process. Or the decision by the CITES Standing Committee itself to permit Guinea to sell 14,000 metric tonnes of endangered and now protected Pterocarpus erinaceus, a tropical timber, felled many years ago, thereby stimulating illegal timber felling in the process.

It’s like having a stash of heroin, legally acquired in the 1920s, and then being given permission to sell it openly today. Conservationists are, yet again, dismayed.

Or consider the July 2020 decision of the Democratic Republic of Congo to permit the domestic hunting, capture, killing and eating of globally iconic native species such as the forest elephant and the Mountain Gorilla, provided the exploiter pays a tax amounting to a few thousand dollars. The measure, quietly passed by the Congolese Environment and Finance ministers, has been described by some as a poachers’ charter.

Or the ongoing depredations of the trophy hunting industry, which seeks to camouflage the brutal and morally bankrupt practice of killing wild animals for ‘fun’ with a cloak of respectability, championing its conservation, employment, and rural development credentials in an effort to defend the indefensible.

Meanwhile, as the natural world continues to hurtle towards the edge of the cliff, a catastrophe of our making, and despite fine words at this summer’s G7 meeting in Cornwall, the international community has yet to agree the bold and transformative measures needed to invest in and secure nature’s protection and recovery, and reverse the current, drastic downward trend.

The Global Initiative to End Wildlife Crime, supported by my organisation, Born Free, amongst others, seeks to establish a global agreement to tackle wildlife crime under the UN Treaty on Transnational Organised Crime, alongside existing agreements on arms and people trafficking and the smuggling of migrants. It also seeks to include proper criteria for the consideration of human and animal health impacts relating to wildlife trade, to try and head off the next pandemic at the pass, the so-called, One Health approach.

A Declaration, drafted by twenty of the world’s most important conservation organisations, the WC20, was presented to G20 leaders at their Summit in November last year, setting out measures that would make the protection and true conservation of our living ecosystems – on which we all rely – a top priority.

These and other such measures are articulated in Born Free’s Global Natural Recovery Investment Initiative, which identifies mechanisms for raising the funds necessary to underpin the health of our natural world.

And innovative finance products, such as those being developed by Rebalance Earth, based on analysis by the International Monetary Fund, have the potential, in a breath, to deliver a suite of transformative benefits - conservation, habitat protection and restoration, sustainable development, and climate change mitigation.

I’ve been working for wildlife for over 37 years, ever since I co-founded The Born Free Foundation with my late father Bill and my mother, Virginia McKenna. Am I optimistic? Just. Can we turn this around? Maybe. Can we rely on our leaders and elected representatives to do the right thing? I am increasingly doubtful.

Fighting the illegal wildlife trade is just one of the battles we face. The multi-trillion-dollar legal trade may end up being even more damaging. Pollution, greenhouse gases, unbridled development; vested interests; short-termism; political expediency; vanity projects like HS2 and the new royal yacht; space tourism; a misguided desire to return to big, bad, ‘business as usual’. These are just some of the individual battles in a war we simply cannot afford to lose. I think the future is in our hands. It really is down to us – you and me. We have no one else to turn to.

For more information visit Bornfree.org.uk

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