David Attenborough’s Plant Earth has once again captured the imagination of the British public. Across the country, people are tuning into the glorious images of dancing flamingos and menacing snakes. Yet while we watch at home in delight, the sad reality is that wildlife across the globe is under threat.
There are few species more at risk than the elephant, which faces a battle for survival every day. The elephant population teeters on the brink of disaster, with one killed every 15 minutes.
Today, MPs will debate the UK’s ivory trade, with many – from across party lines – calling on the Government to deliver its commitment to banning all ivory sales in the UK. As we build a new foreign and environmental policy outside the European Union, the UK has a chance to take real action to play a leading role in ending this bloody trade once and for all.
Elephants are killed to supply ivory markets across the world. Legal markets in countries such as the UK act as a cover for criminal trading of new ivory products. Recent votes at global conferences showed overwhelming international consensus on the need to close all domestic ivory markets to eradicate the demand for poaching.
As a nation of animal lovers, the UK cannot ignore the link between domestic ivory markets and elephant poaching. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall exposed the shocking reality of newly poached ivory for sale on British streets while the Duke of Cambridge has spoken eloquently of the very real risk that Princess Charlotte will grow up in a world without elephants in the wild
The Government has helped to drive international action on elephant protection. Conservative manifestos in 2010 and 2015 pledged to bring an end to ivory sales in the UK. Following a shocking visit to Kenya as Environment Secretary, I worked closely with my counterpart in the Foreign Office, Lord Hague, to organise the 2014 London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade, leading to the London Declaration with significant pledges on grassroots support against poaching as well as a commitment to closing ivory markets.
Encouragingly, Theresa May’s Government has maintained this focus. Just recently, the Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom attended the successor to the London Conference in Hanoi, where she committed an additional £13 million to new measures tackling the trade. The Foreign Secretary is a passionate supporter of these efforts and has warned about the very real prospect of a future without elephants.
This commitment led to new proposals to close the domestic ivory market, by banning the sale of ‘modern ivory’. I welcome this plan as a good first step on the road to a total ban. Nevertheless, it is vital that we do not lose sight of our wider commitment to implement a total ban on ivory sales. The Government must deliver this manifesto pledge and I am confident it will do so.
The symbolism of this commitment is significant. As we plan our future outside the European Union, we can forge our own path on environmental protection, free from the constraints of the European Union.
All too often the EU has failed to deliver on environmental protection. The UK has a proud tradition of supporting global conservation but was frequently ignored as the EU sought a one size fits all policy – with elephants paying the price. In 2008 the EU supported a one-off sale of the ivory stockpile to China, overruling British objections. The following years saw a dramatic increase in the widespread illegal poaching of elephants in Africa and the policy is now rightly recognised as a catastrophe.
Yet the EU did not learn its lesson. Only a few months ago, the EU blocked a proposal at the Conference of the Parties of CITES at Johannesburg to list elephants as one of the most endangered species in the world – against the wishes of some African countries who are frustrated by Europe’s failure to deliver on elephant protection.
While Europe dithers, the rest of the world looks to solutions. The US domestic market closed in the summer, with some pragmatic exemptions for antiques, while China – the largest market in the world – has committed to taking action before the end of the year.
The good news is that the UK no longer has to accept this lowest common denominator diplomacy. Brexit offers the UK the chance to forge its own environmental policies as an independent country and regain global leadership on conservation issues.
Becoming the first European country to implement a total ban on ivory sales would show that the UK is determined to lead the way on wildlife protection.
Whitehall’s Brexit roadmap will, of course, focus on the detail and complexity of leaving the European Union. Nevertheless, it must also look to broad horizons and ambitions. We must not lose sight of the key ideals British voters embraced in their choice to vote Leave – a desire for the UK to take a stand on the world stage and lead by example on issues that matter to British people. Brexit gives Britain the opportunity to forge ahead and take the lead once again on the challenge of saving the world’s elephants. Closing down our ivory markets for good would be a statement of a confident Britain, determined to lead the way.