In Africa a blood drenched war on wildlife is raging and next month Prince William is going behind enemy lines. This is a man with a passionate mastery of a bleak situation. While others understandably genuflect to China’s tumescent economic power, with tongues out for crumbs, his is a higher purpose.
There are at most 500,000 elephants left in Africa and the prince will be taking their desperate plight to the political elite, which by an egregious sin of omission is complicit in the slaughter and foreseeable demise of Loxodonta africana.
Chinese investment in Africa has transformed economies, lifted millions out of poverty and provided hope for nations ravaged by war, corruption or sheer destitution, but there is a quid pro quo. The continent’s forests are being emptied and the savannahs cleared of wildlife. For too many, an encounter with majestic beauty isn’t a precious moment; it’s a precious ornament.
This is reminiscent of European attitudes in the 19th and early 20th centuries, save for the fact that the hideous King Leopold II of Belgium didn’t have helicopter gunships, Kalashnikovs and night vision goggles nor was his barbarism feeding an ever more ravenous $10tn (£6.5tn) consumer economy.
Tempting as it must be, William is in no position to give it the full Ron Reagan – “Mr President. Tear down those carving factories”. This has to be sotto voce diplomatic egg-shell walking. The elephant in the room is a domestic ivory ban as soon as possible – but he knows we can’t point fingers, we can only cross them.
Hopefully William has been taking tea with clever sinologists for hints on negotiating labyrinthine and convoluted cultural complexities. His every step will be attended by party apparatchiks associated with the murky business, ‘impartial’ officials and traditionalists with inner voices crying ‘Western cultural imperialism”. Lots of smiles will be needed then, and all to a soundtrack of assurance and platitude.
The road to this wretched oblivion has been a self-fulfilling catastrophe.
The futures market is slavering as ivory is hoarded for when there is no longer an elephant future. Capitalism may well be the worst system, apart from all the others, but that is not good.
This long road, now littered with rotting carcasses, took a fateful turn in 2008 when the powers that decide, British government included, agreed a one-off sale of over 100 tonnes of ivory to China and Japan, to “flood the market, satisfy demand, provide funds for elephant conservation and reduce poaching”.
The sale price was just over $150 a kilo. However, in China, the party drip-fed ivory into the domestic market, driving the price up to over $1,000 a kilo and pushing the illegal price today to nearly $3,000 a kilo. Any first year economics students nursing the mightiest hangover could have worked out that scenario.
Elephants are intelligent, complex and self-aware beings and the moral case against ivory is unanswerable.
When it comes to elephants we are shamed as a species. Mugabe’s thugs have just stolen dozens of young elephants from the wild to sell to the ghastliness of Chinese zoos. You can hear our shame in the mothers’ calls as the herds edge as near as they dare to the heavily guarded holding pens in Hwange national park. You see it in the youngster guarding his mother after her face has been hacked off and as Will Travers from the Born Free Foundation told me – you can smell it on your shirt for days.
Anthropomorphism isn’t the problem here, it’s anthropocentrism. It’s all about us. It’s all about the price of everything and the value of the next consignment of ivory smuggled out of Mombassa. Oh, and here’s a few gorilla hands for your designer ashtray business.
The prince is clearly driven by outrage and revulsion. John Kerry has called the trade “historically shameful”. The image of poaching can conjure up a couple of Dickensian ruffians hauling a stag over the moor. The reality of this industrialised slaughter is unspeakable. Look online and then try not to look away.
Over the last years we’ve had many frustrating meetings in the corridors of power. There are politicians who in the current vernacular “get it” but others who are, shall we say, less evolved. The former foreign secretary William Hague is impressively attuned to this issue, hence that department’s previous engagement with it. Hague raised it at the highest level of the Chinese leadership, to their surprise. Douglas Alexander and also Mary Creagh and Justine Greening have keen grasps of the security implications, the links to terrorist funding and international crime dimensions but for many others it’s ‘so what’. Batting for British business comes first and this comes nowhere.
Chatting to Jeremy Hunt outside a radio studio recently, he told me how queasy he felt at one particularly ornate gift he received at his wedding in China. Ditto a million weddings and a million carvings for the jeunesse dorée in their whirlwinds of confetti. Ivory is said to bring you good fortune. The aspirant and opulent cherish its beauty but what a terrible beauty. Good luck, sweet prince.