The cruel slaughter of elephants and rhino must stop now


Joanna Lumley, The Evening Standard

Date Published

For years we have known that some of the world’s best-loved animals
stand on the brink of extinction in the wild. The elephant and the
rhino, those gentle giants of the African plains, are particularly
close to the edge. Prince William, who has done so much to promote
their cause, suggested a year ago that we have maybe five to 10 years
to save the latter; elephants have a little longer.

This timescale requires us to act now, and to act decisively. If we
don’t, the slaughter of these majestic creatures will continue until
they remain merely curios in zoos. Even there it seems horned animals
aren’t completely safe. On Tuesday a rhino at Thoiry Zoo near Paris
was shot in the head by poachers, who had broken in during the night.
Vince, a four-year-old male white rhino, was found dead by his
keepers; his horn had been cut off with a chainsaw. The thought of the
cruelty this involves is unbearable.

Tragically, demand for ivory — primarily in the Far East — shows
little sign of abating soon. The rise of the Chinese middle classes,
who have money to burn on “aspirational” goods, has fuelled an
increasingly profitable trade in illegal poaching. Horn is
systematically hacked from rhino and elephants, smuggled out of
Africa, and then turned into both traditional medicines and fancy
trinkets. An elephant is killed approximately every 15 minutes to sate
the appetite for such products.

Instant action on the ground is important, of course. Last year’s
gathering of African leaders at the inaugural Giants Club summit — the
elephant- protection initiative supported by the Evening Standard —
shows there is considerable will to tackle the poachers in the places
they operate.

Not only have key government figures in places such as Botswana,
Gabon, Kenya and Uganda committed themselves to the cause, private
money is also being attracted by key conservation organisations. At
the Giants Club meeting last summer, a range of backers pledged $5
million in immediate funding for new initiatives. And after the
summit, the Kenyan government burned its total stockpile of 105 tonnes
of ivory in a bid to make clear its complete intolerance of a trade
that ultimately will destroy Africa’s natural heritage. This is all to
the good.

However, the savannahs in which elephants and rhino roam are so vast
that the African authorities often find it difficult to remain a step
ahead of the poachers, who are well equipped, heavily armed and highly

Equally vital, therefore, is the work that comes at the other end of
the supply chain, persuading customers in China and elsewhere to give
up their love of ivory. For a start, this means educating people that
to extract ivory an elephant has to be killed — a piece of knowledge
still shockingly unappreciated by many Chinese consumers. In short,
would-be buyers need to be convinced that ivory belongs on living
animals, not carved into items for their mantelpieces or to wear
around their necks.

Impressively, the Chinese government has been quick to realise that
the urgency of the situation requires action from the top. And sure
enough, it has made strides towards a solution; making clear it will
end its domestic ivory trade by the beginning of next year. One-off,
legally sanctioned purchases of the raw material from Africa will
cease and, so the hope goes, local demand for illicit ivory will be

If such sound directives from the centre can be effectively enforced
at the local level, this could truly be a turning point. The
commitment shown thus far by the Chinese government to tackling this
cause is one that the whole world must acknowledge and be grateful

Efforts by the Chinese certainly make it hard for countries in the
West to take the moral high ground over elephant and rhino
conservation. Indeed, in the light of initiatives by Beijing, Europe
increasingly looks like the bad guy. Taken as a whole, our continent
is the largest legal exporter of ivory on the planet, especially for
works of art. This activity patently undermines the workundertaken by
the diplomats and wildlife charities that convinced China’s government
to shut down its domestic markets.

Britain, which in recent times has developed a fine reputation in
matters of wildlife conservation, is among those open to criticism.
Our rules on the trading of ivory are flaky and open to abuse. Selling
ivory obtained after 1975 is currently illegal and, although ministers
appeared set last year to tighten regulations to ban the sale of ivory
from elephants killed after 1947, the proposed change has yet to take

Either way, unscrupulous dealers are not averse to artificially
“ageing” ivory products so they can be sold legitimately as antiques.
Not only does this serve to reinforce the idea of ivory as a valuable
commodity but also provides cover for black-market trading. All this
is made possible by the existing, wishy-washy state of affairs, on
which the present government has done too little to get a grip.

Before the last general election (and the one in 2005 for that matter)
the Conservatives pledged to introduce a complete ban on any domestic
ivory sales in the UK. That promise should, indeed must, now be
fulfilled. There are many in Parliament who agree — nearly 100 MPs
have signed an Early Day Motion calling for an immediate prohibition.
Unless we take this step in forward-thinking, animal-friendly
Britain, how can we say we are helping to present a united front in
the fight to save the elephant?

I know there are some who worry about the livelihoods of legitimate
antique dealers. Concerns are also raised about the impact of a ban on
museums and art galleries in terms of future sales or acquisitions. On
a case- by-case basis, exemptions for important institutions such as
the British Museum — as proposed by most reasonable conservationists —
are surely not beyond the wit of law-makers.

Ultimately, this is no time for half-measures. At the current rate of
decline, elephants and rhino may not exist in the wild by the time a
child born today reaches adulthood. But if we end the sale of ivory
artefacts from the past, we can ensure that the animals from which
this desirable material is so ruthlessly robbed are not, after all,
consigned to history.