William Hague looks incredulous when I ask if it will be a sad moment when he shuts the door on his Commons office for the last time on March 30, the day Parliament is dissolved.
“Sad?!” he laughs, betraying what seems like relief that his political career is all but over. “No, it’s my choice, I’m ready for the change. It’s 20 years since I first joined the Cabinet, 1995, and that’s what’s really made me decide. And I’m looking forward to doing other things.”
Those “other things” include writing (he has two heavyweight political biographies to his name) and music (he took up the piano in his 40s) but he has invited the Telegraph to the Leader of the House’s room to talk about wildlife, and specifically the illegal trade in wildlife products.
This, together with fighting against sexual violence, is the cause to which he will dedicate his post-Parliamentary career, after the Duke of Cambridge persuaded him to become his envoy in the battle against poaching.
For a lifelong politician who led the Conservative Party into a general election in 2001, who served four years as foreign secretary and 26 as an MP, conservation is something of a departure, but Hague, 53, speaks with the passion of a convert.
“Poaching of rhinos has gone up 9,000 per cent since 2007,” he says. “So it’s a wholly recent and man-made problem that can be conquered.
“It’s an issue I care passionately about, and you have to choose the things that are important and where you can make a big difference.”
Hague has agreed to be the chairman of a task force on the illegal wildlife trade for the Duke’s umbrella organisation United for Wildlife, which brings together conservation groups from all over the world to share ideas and put pressure on governments and industry.
He is fresh from chairing the very first meeting of the task force at Kensington Palace the day before this interview, and he admits it is early days. Time, however, is already running out.
Eight years ago just 13 rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa. Last year the figure was 1,215, with demand for rhino horn rocketing among Asia’s increasingly prosperous middle classes. They are guaranteed a steady supply from organised crime gangs using military hardware including helicopters to find their prey.
In central Africa, terrorist groups such as the Lords Resistance Army, Al Shabaab and Boko Haram are among the poachers killing 35,000 elephants a year for tusks that can sell for tens of thousands of pounds each.
The figures are stark, but Hague has no doubt the trend can be reversed.
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“As with the drug trade, the long-term solution is to eliminate demand,” he says, “but in this case we have an advantage we don’t have with drugs: this is not an addiction. This is an industry that only operates in a small number of countries and only among a small minority of their people, so it can be resolved.”
He cites the example of shark fin soup, once a highly-prized delicacy in China but now dropping off the menu thanks to a high-profile public awareness campaign in the country.
Oddly, to Western onlookers, Beijing remains reluctant to direct its considerable power at stamping out the ivory trade. Ivory made from “old” stock remains legal, opening the door for poachers to sell illegal ivory there. The Chinese government imposed a one-year ban on ivory imports days before the Duke of Cambridge visited the country this month; its effect has been to push up ivory prices by 20 per cent, which is good news for poachers.
“That’s the problem with a one-year ban,” says Hague. “If there is one thing the Chinese and other governments could do now to help us, it would be to impose a complete ban on the trade in ivory and rhino horn. That would send a powerful signal that this trade has no future.”
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As with shark fin soup though, the only real solution is to persuade consumers not to buy illegal wildlife products in the first place.
Many consumers in China, Vietnam and other markets are genuinely unaware that their prized luxury goods can only exist if elephants, rhino and other animals are killed.
“Education is key, and social media can play a big part,” Hague says. There is already evidence that China’s younger generation is behind the campaign, and it is they who will persuade their parents and grandparents that buying ivory and other products is unacceptable. In Japan it has already happened.
In the meantime, Hague is using his considerable clout, and that of Prince William, to persuade airlines, shipping companies and border agencies to take the issue seriously and cut off the poachers’ trade routes.
Members of his task force include Sir Tim Clark, president of Emirates Airlines, Mohammed Sharaf, chief executive of Dubai Ports World and Tony Tyler, director general of the International Air Transport Association.
“They’re willing to help but nobody has mobilised them before,” Hague said. “It’s not an easy thing to tackle though. Criminal gangs are experts at concealing arms or drugs or people, and they’re also expert at hiding these products.”
Products which not only include ivory and rhino horn, but also bear bile, tiger claws, animal skins, pangolin meat, stuffed tiger cubs, to name but a few. Detecting each product presents different challenges.
But Hague would not be giving some of the best years of his life to a cause he thought was hopeless. Politicians like challenges they can win, and the fact that Hague is so convinced he can help win this fight will provide succour to conservationists.
Last year United for Wildlife held a conference in London attended by representatives of 40 governments, including China. Hague, whose time as foreign secretary only came to an end last year, still has formidable contacts in many of those countries, and intends to exploit them to the maximum.
So Hague may be going, but he is not going quietly. “I’ll still be knocking around,” he says with a smile.