The census of African elephants published last week demonstrated the scale and urgency of the crisis. It found that in just seven years, 30 per cent of the entire population of savannah elephants had been eliminated, equivalent to the slaughter of over 20,000 a year. The rising prosperity of people in countries such as China and Vietnam has fuelled the demand for ivory in recent years, producing a catastrophe on the ground in parts of Africa, with massive poaching linked to corruption and organised crime.
The reasons why this should be unacceptable to the whole of humanity hardly need stating. The massacre of elephants will severely damage the ecosystems of some of the world’s best remaining habitats, and it undermines the future sustainability of their local communities. But most of all, it is morally indefensible. That magnificent creatures who, left to themselves, lead long lives in close-knit families, should be murdered wholesale, their younger ones orphaned and their babies abandoned is repugnant to anyone who cares about the natural world. How would we ever explain to a future generation that we stood by while the elephants were destroyed?
In the last few years many people across the world have decided they have to do something about this, me included. As Foreign Secretary, I worked with the then Defra secretary, Owen Paterson, to convene a global conference of governments at Lancaster House in 2014. No fewer than three princes, the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry, came to impress on the world’s ministers that action was needed. We assembled four African presidents to sign the Elephant Protection Initiative, which is now African-led, with 14 countries working with Stop Ivory and private donors to conserve their elephant populations and close their domestic ivory markets.
Since I left government I have been chairing a group of airline and shipping companies, at the request of the Duke of Cambridge, to work out how to intercept and prevent shipments of ivory. We are making progress on sharing crucial information and spreading an attitude of zero tolerance towards wildlife crime, and Chinese state agencies have signed up to our recommendations.
My own efforts are just a tiny part of the race to save the elephants. Great work is done by many British and global organisations – the World Wildlife Fund, Tusk, Stop Ivory, the Wildlife Conservation Society and many more. Brave rangers risk, and lose, their lives fighting poachers. Vietnam is hosting the next intergovernmental conference in the series we started. And the United States has weighed in, securing agreement with the Chinese President last year to “halt the domestic commercial trade in ivory”.
The decisive battle against the ivory trade will be won in China and the rest of the Far East, through changing attitudes. The growing readiness of the Chinese authorities to give a lead and clamp down on ivory dealers is of huge importance. In the rest of the world, we have to do everything we can to help with that.
This is where the Conservative manifesto comes in. We British have been at the forefront of this fight. But now, in the absence of government action to close our ivory market, we are in danger of lagging behind. The UK is, embarrassingly, among the largest remaining ivory markets in the world. We still allow domestic trade in ivory with a certificate, as well as the trading and exporting of ivory said to originate before 1947, without any official certification.
The trouble is that well-intentioned but complex rules are difficult to enforce and easy to circumvent. Worldwide, a substantial legal trade is used to cover the illegal ivory trade. Studies by the International Fund for Animal Welfare have found that Britain has been the third-biggest source of intercepted illegal ivory entering the US, and that most ivory sold in antique shops and fairs is done so without the required proof of age. Internet sellers of ivory showed little awareness or care about existing laws. The certificates are often forged.
Worst of all, there is evidence that Britain still plays a part in feeding demand in the East. The 2012 Environmental Audit Committee Report found that antique ivory products were being illegally shipped from the UK to China and South East Asia. Between 2009 and 2014, 40 per cent of all the illegal wildlife products seized by the UK Border Force were ivory. And penalties imposed by our courts have been light or non-existent.
The UN Office of Drugs and Crime is in no doubt that “the trade in illicit ivory is only lucrative because there is a parallel licit supply, and ivory can be sold and used openly”.
This is why many countries, like Botswana and India, now implement a total ban on all trade in ivory, no matter how old. In July, the US banned all foreign commerce and interstate sales of ivory, with narrow exceptions for items a century old. China has tightened import rules and is contemplating its next step.
As the CITES conservation conference assembles in South Africa later this month, the UK should send the strongest possible message and close its ivory markets without delay. EU single market law makes this complicated, but France has just banned all sales of raw ivory and strengthened other rules. Virtually all certificates for the trade could be refused immediately, and new regulations brought forward to match the US’s actions. Such moves would encourage further action by China, and help suppress this evil trade.
The mass killing of some of the world’s most revered animals is an outrage; a manifestation of human selfishness, stupidity and greed. In Britain we have done a great deal to prevent it, but now another step is needed. Often we wait five years for a manifesto promise to be fulfilled: the elephants don’t have that much time.