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Opinion: Illegal wildlife trade must be tackled before it’s too late

PUBLISHED: 11:27 10 October 2018 | UPDATED: 11:35 10 October 2018

Ivory elephant carvings seized by the Border Force at Heathrow Airport   Pic: Border Force/Foreign Office

Ivory elephant carvings seized by the Border Force at Heathrow Airport Pic: Border Force/Foreign Office

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Environment Minister and Suffolk Coastal MP, Dr Thérèse Coffey looks ahead to the international Illegal Wildlife Trade conference, which gets under way in London tomorrow.

Suffolk Coastal MP These Coffey Picture: CHRIS McANDREW/UK PARLIAMENTSuffolk Coastal MP These Coffey Picture: CHRIS McANDREW/UK PARLIAMENT

On average fifty-five African elephants are killed every single day. Last week, a young baby elephant in Malawi was almost part of that sad statistic. The calf lay trapped in a cruel wire snare under the searing African sun as her mother and their herd looked on helplessly.

Fortunately the tragic scene was discovered by a patrol of African Parks rangers and British soldiers who had been providing counter-poaching training to the rangers. Led by Lieutenant Alex Wilson on duty with the Grenadier Guards, the patrol called a local vet and used a helicopter to approach the wounded calf with equipment to save her life. Eventually, the calf was treated successfully and reunited with her mother.

This story had a happy ending. But all around the world, the illegal wildlife trade (IWT) is causing unimaginable damage. Worth up to £17 billion every year IWT is one of the most lucrative forms of organised crime, and it isn’t limited to iconic species like the elephant and rhinoceros. For example, IWT is also a threat to the Scarlet Macaw, the Jaguar and Rosewood, a valuable type of tropical hardwood, which is the most illegally traded genus in the world.

Soldier Lt Alex Wilson with injured elephant calf in Malawi  Pic: British Army/African ParksSoldier Lt Alex Wilson with injured elephant calf in Malawi Pic: British Army/African Parks

Endangered species

IWT is one of many pressures threatening the survival of endangered species, and sits alongside threats such as rising human populations, climate change and change of land-use. Together, these issues put 1003 species of plants and animals under threat of extinction according to CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Such devastation could have unimaginable effects on our planet’s fragile ecosystems.

Tables of seized items at the Border Force's facility at Heathrow Airport   Pic: Border Force/Foreign OfficeTables of seized items at the Border Force's facility at Heathrow Airport Pic: Border Force/Foreign Office

As the story from Malawi shows, however, there is good reason for hope. The actions we have taken as an international community, beyond borders and across governments, have had undeniable effect.

This week, this work will continue, as global leaders, NGOs, business leaders and conservationists meet in London for the fourth Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference. With over 1,000 delegates attending, including official delegations from 82 countries, this will be the largest conference of its kind ever held. We will be building on the successes of previous meetings in London, Kasane and Hanoi. But we must yet go further. We are still at crisis point.

The conference will focus on how to tackle IWT as a serious and organised crime, which has devastating effects not just on rare plant and animal species, but also on local communities. IWT fuels corruption and insecurity, undermines development, and brings crime and instability into some of the world’s poorest communities. We are tackling the underlying issues driving this trade, including providing alternative and sustainable livelihoods to people in poor communities to ensure they can support their families without being forced to turn to crime and to be able to stand up to pressure from organised gangs.

Ivory elephant carvings seized by the Border Force at Heathrow Airport   Pic: Border Force/Foreign OfficeIvory elephant carvings seized by the Border Force at Heathrow Airport Pic: Border Force/Foreign Office

International coalition

To achieve this, we will be strengthening and expanding international coalitions between the private sector, national governments, NGOs and academics. By working together we can champion best practice, achieve results that are impossible if we act alone and make use of the kind of innovative technologies that have the potential to transform the international approach to IWT.

Seized ivory bracelets at the Border Force's facility at Heathrow Airport   Pic: Border Force/Foreign OfficeSeized ivory bracelets at the Border Force's facility at Heathrow Airport Pic: Border Force/Foreign Office

Organisations like the Zoological Society of London are leading the way with innovative technical solutions like ‘Instant Detect’, which uses satellites to monitor the flora and fauna of some of the world’s most challenging environments, from the Antarctica to the Sahara. Instant detect is also being used to help provide early warning of poaching activity. Live information is sent to rangers who can then act quickly.

Finally, we will be focusing on how to close those markets which contribute to the illegal wildlife trade. The UK is introducing one of the toughest ivory bans in the world, with some of the strongest enforcement provisions. 32 African states have called for all European countries to close their ivory markets, and I am delighted that the UK have chosen to lead the way on this issue.

Rare eggs seized by the Border Force at Heathrow Airport   Pic: Border Force/Foreign OfficeRare eggs seized by the Border Force at Heathrow Airport Pic: Border Force/Foreign Office

Unsustainable poaching levels

Although we have made valuable progress, the scale of wildlife crime has increased dramatically in recent years. Poaching levels for many species remain unsustainably high and organised criminal networks continue to profit from the proceeds of the trade. Our fear is not just for the future of increasingly rare and iconic mammals like the African elephant, rhino and pangolin, but also for endangered trees and plant life as varied as cacti, orchids and rare palm trees.

IWT both fuels and encourages corruption. It undermines the rule of law, governance and security. It damages economic growth and sustainable development. It deprives societies of their valuable and finite natural resources, threatening the health of local economies.

It is vital that the international community – represented by the impressive global coalition now gathering in London – unites to tackle these problems before it is too late.

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