Last week I attended a two-day symposium on Wildlife Trafficking in London. The symposium was initiated by United For Wildlife – a flagship project of The Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry – which brings seven of the world’s largest wildlife NGOs into an unprecedented collaboration.
The symposium attracted many concerned conservationists and NGO representatives, as well as a number of intergovernmental and multilateral organisations, such as CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), the World Bank and INTERPOL.
The focus was on protection, enforcement and demand-reduction of rhino, elephant and tiger parts and derivatives. These species are some of the best known on the planet, despite which they are the some of the most severely affected by wildlife trafficking; illegal trade has risen dramatically in recent years – rhino poaching, for example, is said to have increased by 5000% between 2007 and 2012, while the Western black rhino has been declared extinct due to the impacts of poaching.
Many other species are threatened by wildlife trafficking – amongst them are freshwater turtles, fish and reptile species, songbirds, bears and pangolins. The scenario is often similar: demand increases, species become increasingly rare which, in turn, drives up prices and therefore the status associated with procurement and consumption. When species become so rare that they are too difficult and expensive to source locally, traders target their relatives in other countries. Much of the wildlife Crime in Africa, for example, is driven by unabated demand (but low supply) in Asia.
There is some evidence that wildlife trafficking is linked to other kinds of organised crime (e.g., illegal trade in arms and drugs). The Symposium discussed this link in some detail: wildlife trafficking is no small business – estimated to be worth between USD 5 and 20 billion a year. As well as affecting species populations and undermining national and international laws, poaching is increasingly seen as a threat to national security and economic development. This, combined with the assumed links with other kinds of crime prompted some to call for a military-style solution.
However, such an approach wouldn’t address the root cause of the problem, or the networks that make it possible: the whole system needs to be tackled. The poachers themselves are often from poor rural communities whose livelihoods are actually threatened by wildlife trade. They can be easily replaced, they are also incredibly vulnerable – on average one poacher is killed every ten hours (2007-2012). Park rangers are also killed and injured on a regular basis.
Wealth is the key driver of consumption, not poverty. One of the biggest enabling factors behind the surge in wildlife crime is corruption, which turns what should be a high-risk means of income into a low-risk, high yield, practice: all that is needed is the nod of a few corrupt officials or businessmen.
The need for demand reduction was addressed at the Symposium; presenters argued for context-specific messaging – what is relevant and compelling in the west might not be so in parts of Asia, for example. Furthermore, hope was offered when it was shown that young people in consumer countries (such as China and Viet Nam) are starting to engage in wildlife issues and can be targeted by social media campaigns to help change their behaviour, and most importantly, their elders behaviour.
On the second day of the symposium (Feb 13th), Heads of State, Ministers and high level representatives of 46 countries met at Lancaster House, chaired by Foreign Secretary of State William Hague and attended by the Price of Wales, Duke of Cambridge and Price Harry. Key states committed to taking “decisive and urgent action” to tackle wildlife trafficking globally and signed up to several actions, including:
1. Eradicating the market for illegal wildlife products (tackling both demand and supply)
2. Ensuring effective legal frameworks and deterrents (particularly targeting ‘kingpins’)
3. Strengthening law enforcement (focusing on increasing investment and building capacity)
4. Sustainable livelihoods and economic development (through positive engagement with local communities)
Read more on the declaration here.
It is hoped that the new commitments from political leaders, increased public awareness and engagement and a collaborative effort between conservation NGOs and others, will translate into effective action and prevent the loss of already globally threatened species.