I cannot imagine what it would feel like if the last elephant or rhinoceros in the wild died — and I then had to explain to my children how we let it happen. It would be impossible to reassure them with a straight face that we could still reverse climate change or end intractable conflicts.
The global agenda is full of challenges demanding attention. We live on a warming planet that is home to increasingly unequal societies confronting new and unsettling forms of conflict and extremism. So why spend energy on tackling the multibillion-dollar illegal wildlife trade? At a time when the threats to human health and security are so great, why should any president, prime minister or chief executive prioritise concern about poaching in Africa?
My riposte is that conservation is about people, not just animals: the 1,000 park rangers who have been killed by poachers in the past decade; the victims of the militia organisations that use the profits of poaching to fund conflict and massacres; the millions of Africans whose economic security relies on a wildlife tourism industry but whose livelihoods are being destroyed. About 80 per cent of revenue received in Africa from tourists comes from watching wild animals, which are the ones most often threatened by poaching. The criminals who plunder the world’s natural resources are trapping fellow human beings in poverty, denying future generations the right to economic and social development. It is a vicious circle.
We must act for the sake of all these people and break a cycle that has far-reaching consequences. We must also make clear that tackling the pernicious illegal trade in wildlife is a key test of our communal ability to confront any global challenge. If we do not tackle it in a concerted way, the result will not just be the extinction of some of the world’s iconic animals. If we let these animals vanish on our watch, the impact on our collective confidence to tackle any other global issue will be devastating.
At its core, the illegal wildlife trade is much more straightforward than we sometimes admit. Take ivory poaching. We know where the animals with ivory are. We know roughly how many are left. We know where the markets for ivory are. We know that the demand for this product is driven by simple things that should be easily influenced — ignorance and greed are chief among them. We know which roads and which ports, like those in Dar es Salaam and Mombasa, criminals use to transport it from killing field to marketplace. Because we know all of these things, this is a problem that can be solved.
The urgency of the crisis demands a coalition of politicians and business leaders to take steps to confront this. I have been encouraged by the momentum around the world to end the illegal wildlife trade. It is on the agenda of the world’s leaders. I have raised these issues with President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping in the past year in my visits to Washington and Beijing as both the US and China can be world leaders in this battle. Last month the two presidents issued a joint statement pledging to ban domestic ivory markets and to work together to do more globally on trafficking.
The UK government has called for a total ban on ivory sales and the British army recently sent a team to support the fight against poachers in Gabon. Last week, United for Wildlife, the collaboration I head, brought together an international task force in Dubai with representatives from business and transport agencies, including Dubai Ports, Maersk and Emirates, to design a plan to shut down the transport routes used by criminal traffickers. We expect the task force, chaired by William Hague, former UK foreign secretary, to publish its plan in the next few months.
In national capitals, in corporate boardrooms and on the ground momentum is building. This is a battle we can win. And given the importance of this issue to our global collective confidence, we really cannot afford to fail.