Theresa May Wants The UK To Be Outward Looking – The Wildlife Trade Is The Right Place To Start


Alexander Rhodes CEO of Stop Ivory, Huffington Post UK

Date Published

Britain has a proud tradition of being a global leader in conservation, embodied by giants such as David Attenborough and Jane Goodall. In recent years we have taken a leading role in the fight against the illegal wildlife trade, importantly hosting 46 nations at the seminal 2014 London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade.

Speaking this week at the G20 summit, Theresa May has made clear she intends for Britain “to be even more outward-looking around the whole of the world” following our vote to leave the EU. As the Prime Minister speaks, the world is watching for indications of the nature of our new global perspective.

This is a question for every sector and Mrs May’s team has got off to a bad start in global conservation. This week the world’s conservation community is meeting in Hawaii at the IUCN World Conservation Congress to decide international policy on the world’s most important conservation issues, including tackling the illegal wildlife trade. Britain’s seat is empty. President Obama has just created the world’s largest marine park and flew to Honolulu to highlight the US’s commitment to action. The British Government has sent no one. Not even a junior official.

That it is early days for a new Government is no excuse. In our increasingly networked world, conservation is not just about protecting species from the effects of our excesses – important though that is. These issues affect Britain directly, including the health and resilience of our environment as well as regional security and our international profile. We are also one of the largest donors to international conservation; many of our investments will be reporting in Hawaii and we are not there to check on their performance.

The illegal wildlife trade is the fourth largest international crime, costing up to $20 billion globally per year behind only narcotics, counterfeiting and human trafficking. It fosters corruption, undermines the rule of law and hampers sustainable development and, as highlighted in the results of the Great Elephant Census published last week, it is having a frightening impact on our planet’s ecosystems and their resilience.

One of the major issues being debated in Hawaii is a proposal backed by African nations for the few remaining countries with legal ivory markets to close them and, as a result, help end the poaching of elephants. Shamefully, the list of offenders includes the UK. For while we have encouraged African nations to do more in terms of elephant conservation, we have not delivered on our side of the bargain. Despite having a longstanding commitment to close Britain’s ivory market (including in the 2010 and 2015 Conservative Party manifestos), the Government has failed to act. In this, we are behind most countries including the US, France and China.  

Hosted by the then Foreign Secretary, Lord Hague, the 2014 London Conference achieved the London Declaration on the Illegal Wildlife Trade and the launch of the Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI) – both of which have been followed by significant international action and collaboration. It was a classic example of how British diplomacy and leadership can be brought to tackle some of the most difficult global issues.

Mrs May’s new Government must rediscover this ambitious spirit. It can only do so through action. A start would be sending representatives to the other key conferences this year: the 17th Conference of the Parties to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) in South Africa later this month, and, in November, the third Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade in Vietnam. At the former, the UK will be asked to vote to support a resolution put forward by African State members of the EPI for all domestic markets to be closed.

These international conferences present the UK with an opportunity to return to the world stage as a conservation leader. But we can only credibly do so if our Government leads by example in implementing its own policy. Britain needs to make good on its commitment to close the UK ivory market now, without further prevarication.  

The Prime Minister is right to be optimistic about Britain’s future. We are a confident nation and we have an important leadership role to play on the world stage, not least in ensuring the survival of the natural world which so inspires and delights us.

At this pivotal time in our history, fine words alone are not enough to reestablish our global position. If the Government acts now, it has a chance to help save the African elephant and, at the same time, Britain’s credibility as a leader in global conservation. That’s the outward looking country I want to live in.