We lose an elephant every fifteen minutes. Their population has fallen by almost a third since 2007. Whichever way you put the numbers, the decline in Africa’s elephants over the last nine years is utterly shocking. The Great Elephant Census, published in August, found only 352,271 Savannah elephants across the 8 countries surveyed. This alarming decline is the direct result of rising demand for ivory.
In recent years, I have visited Kenya and South Africa; the shocking sight and stench of recently magnificent elephants and rhinos turned into horrendous rotting carcasses, swarming with clouds of flies still disgusts me.
There is a rational argument that the answer to demand for a product is to supply more. We should therefore actively farm elephants for their ivory and rhinos for their horns. Sadly, this rational response is quite unworkable because of the grotesque imbalance between the number of individuals, mainly in Asia, wishing to buy and the comparatively tiny number of animals that could actually be raised to meet demand. Indeed, while the trade is legal, rational investors know that to buy ivory is to invest in a product whose value can only increase, as soon we will run out of elephants.
Instead, we should follow the spectacular success of the Chinese reductions in the use of shark fins for soup at traditional, prestigious events such as weddings and State banquets, achieved by the Chinese leadership at the highest levels deeming it simply unacceptable. The only way to save elephants and rhinos is to impose a co-ordinated global ban on the use of their products.
Following a particularly shocking visit to northern Kenya as Secretary of State at DEFRA, I worked closely with the then Foreign Secretary William Hague and together we identified key actions to prevent poaching: improving enforcement, reducing market demand and supporting communities to find viable alternatives. We recognised that global agreement was required and convened the London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade held at Lancaster House in 2014; it provided a stunning example of the UK’s extraordinary international influence and reach to bring nations together from around the world. Over 40 countries attended and agreed a consensus on key actions. The London Declaration also saw the creation of the Elephant Protection Initiative by five African leaders, calling for domestic ivory markets to close and support for elephant conservation under a common platform.
I remain very proud of the role the UK played in driving forward this agenda, and particularly that we were able to work together and build new relationships across the Commonwealth. Conservation charities – such as TUSK and Stop Ivory – as well as members of the Royal Family including the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge have done a brilliant job in drawing global attention to the damage done by poaching. They have shone a spotlight on this horrific trade and demanded action from policy makers.
As the catastrophic decline in the elephant population makes clear, however, further action is needed to keep up the momentum. All countries must step up to their responsibilities, or else all the action to date will have been in vain. This cannot mean anything other than closing domestic ivory markets. Although international trade in ivory has been outlawed, ivory can still be bought and sold in individual countries.
These domestic markets have been shown to provide cover for the illegal international trade, in turn fuelling poaching, funding criminal activity and undermining the ability of African communities to develop free from corruption. The impact of internal markets is truly international, driving up the demand for ivory. It is estimated that the annual trade in illegal wildlife is worth £15 billion, making it the third most valuable illicit commerce behind drugs and arms. Some of it is funding terrorist groups such as al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda-linked extremists blamed for killing 72 people in Nairobi’s Westgate mall.
Fortunately, there is now international consensus that domestic ivory markets belong in the past. Last weekend, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature passed a motion calling for all domestic ivory markets to close by an overwhelming margin of over 80 per cent. Momentum is building, with this year alone, the US, Hong Kong, France and even China taking steps to close their markets. The US now operates a ban with clear workable exemptions.
The 2015 Conservative manifesto made a very clear commitment to closing the UK domestic market. The new Secretaries of State, Boris Johnson and Andrea Leadsom, have signalled that they will treat this matter with the seriousness it deserves, and I hope and expect that we will make good on our promise urgently. The UK has a crucial opportunity to recapture its leadership on conservation on the world stage next week.
The spotlight will be trained upon the CITES Conference in Johannesburg, where we have a chance to send a powerful message by voting to close domestic markets around the world. It is, therefore, vital that we announce our domestic ban this week. If the UK is to continue to be a global authority, and continue to insist that demand be shut down in countries like China and Vietnam, we must first ensure that our internal market is closed once and for all.
The Sunday Telegraph
Sunday 18 September 2016
The UK can lead the way in helping to save elephants