The UK must become a global leader in the fight against poaching


Alexander Rhodes, The Independent

Date Published

After the surprises of 2016, both at home – Brexit, Leicester City to Ed Balls on Strictly – and abroad, 2017 will be a year of change. But there is some trepidation as to what it might bring.  

However, for elephants, 2017 has unquestionably got off to a good start. Two good news stories over the Christmas break didn’t get the attention they deserve. First, Hong Kong confirmed its timetable for enacting a ban on ivory sales. Legislation will be introduced in early 2017, kicking off a three-step plan of increasing restrictions culminating in a total ban on all ivory sales in 2021.

This news was followed by the major announcement from the Chinese Government that it will close its domestic ivory market by the end of 2017. This has rightly been heralded as a game-changer for the future of elephants. The overwhelming majority of ivory traded across the world is destined for China. The closure of China’s ivory market will strike a body blow to the global ivory trade and the horrors of the bloody poaching it drives. The Duke of Cambridge was not exaggerating when he said that China’s decision ‘could be a turning point in the race to save elephants from extinction.’

The symbolic importance of China’s announcement should be noted as well. China first committed to closing its domestic ivory market in 2015, and this announcement delivers on this promise. Consumer demand for ivory in China is driven by its status as a luxury product and a status symbol. This determined action from the Chinese Government shows a commitment to valuing wildlife over jewellery and furniture. It recognises that a live elephant is always worth more than ivory products. This cultural change is vital if we are to end the ivory trade once and for all.

China has set the ball rolling. The US has already stepped up; France is taking forward new laws, and while Hong Kong’s timetable seems overly slow, governments worldwide acting to close ivory markets in their own jurisdictions. This concerted action will make 2017 the year that domestic ivory markets are finally closed.

Alarmingly, the UK is one of the few exceptions to this global effort. With one of the largest remaining ivory markets globally, and a longstanding commitment to press for a total ban on ivory sales, the British Government has a duty to act and to do so without delay. In September last year, following pressure from other countries and NGOs, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs finally announced that it would consult on the closure of only a small segment of the UK ivory market: the very smallest token step it could take. The Government has been asked to act at a speed and scope commensurate with other countries, but we are now beginning 2017 without clarity of how and when the British ivory market will be shut.

The UK has a proud reputation as a global leader in wildlife conservation. In 2014 we hosted the first International Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade, at which the leaders of five African countries launched the ground breaking Elephant Protection Initiative, calling for governments to close their domestic ivory markets. The UK should rightly be proud of the EPI’s success: with a growing membership of 16 African countries at Presidential level, the declared support of all major NGOs operating in the field and a dedicated joint-secretariat provided by Stop Ivory and Conservation International, it has emerged as a new paradigm of African-led, partnership-based and results-oriented delivery to stop the ivory trade and secure a meaningful future for elephants and the people who live alongside them.  Initiatives such as the Elephant Crisis Fund and the Giants’ Club are also delivering increasingly effective work at the front line to stop the killing and trafficking of elephants.

But this leadership internationally is being undermined by our failure to act at home. Speaking in September, the Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom commended the UK for its “strong record as a global leader in the fight against the illegal wildlife trade” and challenged other countries to match the UK’s record. However, the reality is that other countries are steaming ahead of us when it comes to tackling the ivory trade. They have absorbed the evidence, set out their plans and put them into action – while the UK is still obfuscating, waiting to consult on next steps.  

There are no clear reasons for this delay. The Conservative Party committed to a ‘total ban on ivory sales’ in its 2010 and 2015 manifestos. The last Government’s leadership under both Lord Hague and Owen Paterson MP was passionate and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has spoken eloquently and stridently about the urgent need for us to deliver change at home without delay. It is also one of the few issues on which there is genuine consensus on across party lines, with all major parties in Parliament united on the need for an ivory ban. Moreover, there is undeniable public support– recent polling found that 80% of the UK public think buying and selling ivory in the UK should be banned, while a petition on the Parliament website calling for a total ban has received over 100,000 signatures meaning the issue will be debated by the Government.  With domestic and international consensus united around the need to close ivory markets, many of us are at a loss to explain the UK’s ongoing inaction.

While the UK hesitates, it’s clear that elephants cannot afford to wait for action.  Figures published in August 2016 showed that savanna elephant populations declined by 30% between 2007 and 2014, with more than 140,000 elephants lost. The huge sums made from the illegal ivory trade are also fuelling global criminal activity including trafficking. As long as markets for ivory products exist, elephants will never be safe and the prospects for rural communities across Africa will be blighted.

Since the Government announced the consultation, 10,000 further elephants have been butchered across Africa for their tusks.  While the consultation must be welcomed as an opportunity for the UK to take real action, the current scope is too narrow and the timetable too slow to be meaningful.  The Government must use this consultation process to look beyond its current proposals and instead set out its plan for total market closure following the examples of China and America.

It is within our power to close the UK ivory market and to do so quickly.  We must choose now to ensure that 2017 is the year that elephants are finally valued over their ivory.

Alexander Rhodes is the founder and former CEO of Stop Ivory, a Trustee of Tusk Trust and a solicitor at Mishcon de Reya LLP