Stay silent and Africa’s elephants will vanish


Matthew Parris, The Times

Date Published

On Monday, the deafening rustle of the Brexit white paper in the Commons chamber will all but drown out a very different debate scheduled for Westminster Hall, not 50 yards away. But for all the noise of our arguments over the European behemoth, that quieter session matters immensely. The African elephant is in deep trouble, and MPs want Britain to join the American and Chinese ban on trading in ivory.

The elephant’s deadliest enemy will in the end be cattle and goats. You may have seen a report in The Times this week of violent conflict in Kenya between African locals and white landowners who combine limited farming with game conservation. African populations are mushrooming; livestock are hungry; elephants and subsistence farmers don’t easily mix; and poachers get cover from locals desperate to encroach on reserves. Despite Stevie Wonder, ebony and ivory do not yet live together in perfect harmony on the continent they share. An elephant is falling to a poacher’s gun every 15 minutes.

We will not end poaching without stopping the worldwide ivory trade. This is achievable but, inexplicably, a distracted British government has slipped from leading to lagging in the fight. Where once we led the world in banging heads together, we’re now shrinking back just as the campaign moves to the front foot. MPs, from Owen Paterson and William Hague to Boris Johnson, are deeply worried. Why won’t Andrea Leadsom, the cabinet minister responsible, end the seemingly perpetual “consultation” and get a move on?

Last month I spent time in a most beautiful place, saw at close quarters our planet’s most amazing beast and, at the Samburu national reserve in northern Kenya, talked for hours with an admirable human being. Now in his seventies, Dr Iain Douglas-Hamilton is founder and CEO of Save the Elephants. After some half a century of turning data-gathering into the key weapon in this campaign, he has rarely been more hopeful that the battle can be won, nor more anxious lest momentum now gained be lost.

Three campaigns must be folded into one: at bush-level the anti-poaching drive; internationally the crackdown on trafficking and the ivory trade; and at home, here and abroad, the reduction in middle-class demand. We must dull the world’s appetite for ivory.

Together these three campaigns are working — confounding the doubts of my younger Tory self. I’d once have said that restricting availability will only increase price, enrich criminals and embed crime. I’d have doubted you could talk the public out of wanting a product. I’d have resisted regulation. “Farm the creatures,” I’d have said. “Supply the market; make profit the incentive to maintain the species.”

Experience proves me wrong. An almost limitless potential demand for a tiny bit of a huge wild animal that takes decades to mature and resists all attempts to confine it, makes “farming” the creature impossible. As to enforcement, it turns out that trafficking and trade can and do fall victim to customs checks, police informers and market spies.

You cannot easily hide a tusk down your trousers; any activist can entrap and report a trader; and the ivory trade is not a big enough business, even in China, to give it shelter from government.

And on my personal political journey I’ve become persuaded that persistent, vigorous official and activist-driven propaganda efforts really can alter cultural preferences, especially among the rising generation. Domestic violence, hitting children, drink-driving, smoking, factory-farming . . . people can be persuaded; people can change. For many years now, middle-class Chinese tourism to Africa has been increasing by about 50 per cent a year, faster than to any other part of the world. Today you see Chinese tourists everywhere in African game reserves. I saw the giant bed built in Samburu for the visiting 7ft 6in basketball star Yao Ming, a sporting hero who has become an ambassador in China for endangered elephants.

People in the Far East are no different from us in loving nature: they just need to be persuaded that their tastes really are helping kill a species. Chinese politicians do flinch, like our own, at international reproach; do respond, like our own, to international admiration.

Standing with me at his research centre in the Samburu reserve (and flanked by a range of elephant skulls and an elephant-crushed Toyota), Iain and his Kenyan field manager David Daballen explained, as they had to Bill and Chelsea Clinton, how tracking, counting and understanding the habits of the beast lie at the heart of their campaign. David drove us through elephant herds, naming the matriarch she-elephant in each. Some had tracking devices. Iain showed us maps with thousands of thin red lines, each the peregrination of a tracked elephant. We know where populations are rising or falling; we know how the price of ivory is responding; we know we may now be close to getting traders and poachers on to the back foot.

The announcement that both the United States and China are banning the ivory trade is a huge step. Doubts, of course, must be confronted. What do we do about the ivory we already possess? The American answer is a general ban accompanied by small exceptions in designated cases. It really is possible to make a regulatory distinction between your great-aunt’s pendant and a three-foot section of tusk. You can’t stop your great-aunt’s grandson swapping the ornament for his sister’s binoculars — but you can send the antiques dealer who touches this trade to prison.

China, despite a thriving trade and a score of ivory factories to upset, will do it. America, despite her enthusiasm for market capitalism, is doing it.

So why is Britain dragging its feet? Ending the trade at home is a Tory manifesto promise; but civil servants in the Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) have started mumbling about a long consultation, and inserting an “only post-1947 ivory” clause into any ban. This would wreck it. Surveys show that modern ivory is routinely traded as antique. Police constables cannot carry carbon-dating machines.

“Defra’s busy with Brexit, replacing EU farm subsidies,” bureaucrats murmur. Well precisely! Amid a big heap of political gristle, here sits a small, simple, cheap, uncontroversial, do-able thing that would raise big cheers. Leadsom may never delight the National Farmers’ Union but she could be an instant hero to millions of young world-wildlife campaigners.

And to me. And Prince William. And Boris. And (for who knows what a she-elephant knows?) a multitude of five-tonne matriarchs across the African plains. Listen to Monday’s debate, Mrs Leadsom, sweep the cautionary memos from your desk — and do it!