Conservation leaders warn of ongoing threat of illegal wildlife trade at The Independent’s UN summit event


Louise Boyle, The Independent

Date Published

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Leading conservation experts highlighted the ongoing threat of infectious diseases from the illegal wildfire trade during The Independent’s event at a prestigious summit convening amid the 75th meeting of United Nations General Assembly on Thursday.

The high-level discussion, as part of our Stop The Illegal Wildlife Trade campaign, was led by Dr Max Graham, from The Independent’s charity partner Space for Giants.

He was joined by the Rt Honorable Lord William Hague, former British foreign secretary, Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, veterinarian and founder of NGO Conservation Through Public Health, and Professor Lee White CBE, Minister of Water, Forest, the Sea and Environment for the Gabonese Republic.

The Independent’s Stop the Illegal Wildlife Trade campaign, which launched earlier this year, seeks an international effort to clamp down on poaching and the illegal trade of wild animals.

“Never has there been a more poignant moment to discuss this specific topic,” Dr Graham said during opening remarks, noting that the Covid-19 pandemic had made pangolins a “household name”.

Professor White explained some specific health risks that exist in countries like biodiversity-rich Gabon, and how easy it is for zoonotic diseases to “leap” across from wildlife, particularly primates, which are closely related to humans.

Gabon has had three outbreaks of Ebola, another zoonotic disease, he said. He noted that he personally had sampled a chimpanzee with the virus during his previous life as a zoologist in the field.

Now as a government minister, Professor White said that both legislation and education played important roles but were not always welcomed, particularly in rural communities where eating primates has been a tradition for generations, and where crops are often raided by the species.

He said that Gabon had recently regulated against the consumption of bats and pangolins as a precaution, after the species potentially played a role in the Covid-19 outbreak in China. He added that researchers in Lope, Gabon had found giant pangolins sharing their burrows with species of bats known to carry coronaviruses.Skip in 5

Dr Kalema-Zikusoka, who is based in Uganda, illustrated the flipside of the pandemic where wildlife, along with human populations, are at grave risk.

She told of the ‘“huge shock” for the country earlier this summer when a rare silverback gorilla named Rafiki was killed by a poacher who crossed its path while hunting for smaller animals. The poacher was given a landmark 11 years in prison for the crime.

But Dr Kalema-Zikusoka said that the tragic loss illustrated how communities needed economies built on more than eco-tourism alone. The industry has been decimated by the pandemic, and left many out of work and struggling to feed their families.

Lord Hague, who works with The Royal Foundation as part of the United for Wildlife coalition, spoke of the three “Es” as solutions to the illegal wildlife trade.

“Entrenching,” he said, “making it business as usual in industries to deal with this topic. Train staff, enforce rules, find shipments and track down the financial flows.”

“I want to see it built into the day-to-day business of industries around the world,” he added.

On enforcement, Lord Hague said that while there are often domestic laws in place to stop the illegal wildlife trade, it needed greater commitment from governments.

“There are national leaders in some countries who say they are strong on wildlife issues but turns out there is corruption, bureaucracy, or their own crime agencies don’t regard it as a priority,” he said.

His third solution was “enthusing” — raising public awareness of the illegal wildlife trade by engaging influential figures in campaigns. He pointed to success stories in China, where consumption of shark fin soup had dropped, and in Uganda, where ads featuring footballers, musicians and religious leaders inform people about illicit trade and wildlife trafficking.

The event was part of the Concordia Annual Digital Summit 2020, where heads of state, CEOs, NGO executives, and changemakers come together to discuss issues causing division across the globe.

For the past decade, Concordia has hosted a large summit each fall in New York, parallel to the UN General Assembly. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s events are being held digitally.

Other Concordia speakers this week include Bob Woodward, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter and author of the recent Trump biography, Rage. Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General; Kelly Craft, US Ambassador to the UN, and Bernard Looney CEO of BP are also scheduled to speak.