Prince William, Yao Ming and David Beckham team up to tackle wildlife crime


The Guardian

Date Published

Britain’s Prince William and footballer David Beckham have launched a campaign to help stigmatise the buying of ivory and rhino horn.

“Our children should not live in a world without elephants, tigers, lions and rhinos. Enough is enough,” Prince William said as he convened the United for Wildlife group, a coalition of global conservation groups.

“It is time to choose between critically endangered species and the criminals who kill them for money.”

The sports-themed slogan – #WhoseSideAreYouOn – aims to highlight the slaughter of tens of thousands of animals a year that feeds the illegal trade. It is supported by a host of big names, including tennis player Andy Murray, Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton, cricketer Rahul Dravid and basketball ace Yao Ming, whose campaign against shark finning is credited with slashing consumption in China.

The United for Wildlife campaign set out its commitment to improve enforcement in February. The initiative launched on Monday is aimed at increasing public pressure on consumers of ivory and other illegal wildlife products.

“We knew we needed to do more to bring the illegal wildlife trade into the open,” said Prince William. “It thrives because it is hidden, often invisible, making it easy for criminals to expand their violent greed. We wanted to find a way to show the world what was happening.”

The slaughter of elephants, rhinos, tigers and other species has surged in the last decade, driven by a lucrative illicit trade estimated to be worth up to US$20 billion a year.

Only drugs, people and arms trafficking earn more for criminals. More than 1,000 rangers have been killed in the last decade and the corruption and violence accompanying wildlife crime takes a heavy toll on local communities.

More than 22,000 African elephants were killed in 2012 for their ivory, from a population of about 500,000. Rhinos have been harder hit, with 1,004 poached in South Africa last year compared to just 13 in 2007. Tiger numbers have plunged by more than 97 per cent in the last century.

Lead ambassador Beckham said he was “passionate” about the cause. “It really is devastating and we are in a world where our generation and the younger generation really can make a difference and we need to do it now,” he said. “Are we on the side of the criminals or are we on the side of the animals?”

Emmanuel de Merode, director of the Virunga national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), was shot by poachers in April but survived.

De Merode has seen 130 of his rangers murdered in a decade, as well as massacres of the mountain gorillas for which Virunga is famous. It was also home to the world’s largest population of hippos in the world, but just 350 of the 27,000 have survived.

“This is a war driven by the illegal exploitation of natural resources, of which wildlife crime is a part,” he said. “We are not just looking after wildlife, we are looking after people too.”

Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid, said campaigns targeting public opinion could be very effective, but only if they reached the audiences in the key consuming countries, of which China is the largest.

More than 100 million sharks were being killed every year, but the eating of shark fin soup in China has fallen by 50-70 per cent in the least two years, coinciding with a campaign fronted by Yao Ming and the banning of the dish from official state dinners.

Knights said attacking the demand for the products of the wildlife trade was crucial, not just fighting to cut the supply with improved enforcement. “They have been doing the on-the-ground stuff for years.

“But it’s like the drugs trade – you can put trillions of dollars into enforcement but if the demand is still there you will not solve the problem.”

Knights said recent moves against the ivory trade in China were encouraging, including three key retailers taking ivory off their shelves, a series of high-profile destructions of ivory stockpiles and tough penalties of up to 10 years in jail for wildlife crime.