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Boris Johnson has interrupted a sweeping speech on the UK’s geopolitical future to make a passionate plea to save the African elephant, saying they are on the brink of extinction as they “get turned into umbrella stands and billiard balls”.
In the midst of a speech at Chatham House to ambassadors and foreign policy advisers, the UK foreign secretary said he was “obsessed with the tragic fate of the African elephant”.
“It is mankind’s privilege to share the planet with these magnificent and curious creatures, these throwbacks from a different age,” he said.
Johnson backs a total ban on ivory trading, in line with the Conservative manifesto, but Theresa May’s government has refused to go that far, instead allowing trade in antique ivory.
He has in the past chastised the EU for failing to adopt a united front to back such a ban.
“It is heartbreaking that their numbers have shrunk from 1.3m in the 1990s to a mere 415,000 today,” Johnson told his Chatham House audience. “That is 110,000 elephants gone since 2006.
“In our lifetimes they could be gone for ever. Animals that filled our imaginations since our childhood and whose every attribute is a walking metaphor – even if you do not care they all get turned into umbrella stands and billiard balls, and even if you do not mind your great-grandchildren grow up in a world without elephants, I do mind deeply.”
“The death of the elephant is a disaster that proceeds from other disasters,” he said, claiming they were the victims of a wider contest for global resources reflected in human trafficking, poaching and a population explosion likely to reach 11 billion by 2050.
Johnson has said in the past that it was dismaying that the EU had found itself unable to unite on an ivory ban, and therefore unable to speak up properly at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).
At its latest conference in South Africa, Cites was unable to gather a two-thirds majority to upgrade the level of protection for elephants, largely due to the EU voting as a bloc and refusing to back the toughest measures.
Johnson has said: “By taking back control of our conservation strategy we in Britain will once again be able to show a global lead.”
The UK government’s official position has been to describe the outcome of the Cites conference as a success for elephant conservationists since counter-efforts to liberalise the ivory trade were defeated.
But the UK government has also so far resisted the appeal of a total ban on the ivory trade in the UK. It has instead decided to increase the burden of proof for those trading in old ivory so that dealers will in the future have to provide clear evidence that the objects they are selling are more than 70 years old.