United Nations Development Programme Global Wildlife Programme lead Paul Harrison


Emma Ledger, The Telegraph

Date Published

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Illegal cross-border trade in wildlife, with its strong links to organised transnational criminal networks using increasingly sophisticated tactics, is a truly global issue. Therefore the battle to eradicate such trade is not the problem of one single country or continent, rather it demands a truly global response. 

Paul Harrison, the Global Wildlife Program lead for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which tackles poaching and illegal wildlife, knows only too well that coordinating how the international community will try to eradicate such trade is a deeply complex and sensitive task.

Paul says: “This is the biggest single issue currently facing wildlife. Next week, the Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) conference in Hanoi will bring together world leaders to reaffirm pledges and actions to stamp out illegal trade.

“We’re going to see these leaders making more pledges and giving more clarity about exactly what they will do next. There will be a real sense of peer pressure at the IWT meeting. It’s going to be a pivotal moment in deciding the future of some of the planet’s most endangered species.”

Nations are waking up to their responsibilities, in particular with regard to the sale of ivory which has never been higher on the news agenda. Andrea Leadsom, Secretary of State for Environment, is receiving pressure to shut down the UK domestic ivory market, and will attend the IWT conference, which runs from 17 to 18 November in Vietnam.

It follows the London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade in 2014, out of which came The Elephant Protection Initiative, which calls for a comprehensive, cohesive response to the elephant crisis. The second IWT conference held in Botswana in 2015 helped to determine exactly what needed to be done, when and how.

“The London conference was a real turning point in terms of the scale of international awareness, and more importantly raising political will, but now it’s time for real action,” says Paul. “There’s a strong sense that we’ve got to show what we’re doing. Last year there was a UN General Assembly Resolution calling for nations to act; the message is much stronger than it’s ever been.

“But although there might be a lot of awareness at a political level that things need to change, it’s not enough for the international community to come together to say ‘this is what we’re going to do’. They have to go and actually do it.”

Paul and his colleagues at UNDP have supported the implementation of government-led projects in key countries, as well as developing new projects programmes which support tackling IWT objectives, many of which will be having an impact by the end of this year. These projects include tackling poaching in national parks, helping governments with dedicated wildlife crime units and tackling trafficking such as at ports.

They include the UN Wildlife Initiative, a simple but hugely powerful idea developed by Paul and colleagues after seeing the same people from across the UN system time and again at meetings around the globe. Why not coordinate better amongst themselves to actually get things done, seeing as they’re all working for the same aim? The UN Wildlife Initiative aims to unite key players in the UN system to discuss a particular issue or a country, plan what to needs to happen and how to action it.

Paul joined the UNDP in 2014, as an advisor  on ecosystems and biodiversity conservation with a specific remit to lead UNDP’s work on combatting the illegal wildlife trade.

Paul’s lifelong passion for wildlife inspired him to seek a career in conservation and he initially sought to study Natural Sciences to achieve this  but during a gap year in Uganda working on an animal census Paul realised that other approaches to conservation were also essential:: “I was intrigued by the local people, and quickly realised the need to listen to them as they are intrinsically involved in their landscape.

“I would go around villages with a translator to chat to people, asking basic stuff about how they were able to live with wildlife and although I couldn’t communicate easily with them I knew I needed to, because their experiences were at the heart of the wildlife conservation work we were doing.”

This realisation that local people should be part of the equation led Paul to study Social Sciences at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), learning fluent Swahili along the way, and following that with an MSc in Tourism, Environment and Development. Since then he has spent much of his life in East Africa, working in a variety of conservation, natural resource management and sustainable development roles including previously running a professional natural resources consultancy and setting up an ethical timber trading initiative called ‘Sound and Fair’ that sources certified timber from community managed forests in Africa..

“It’s vital to understand the social and economic reasons behind any wildlife issue,” Paul says. “Because it’s not just about the wildlife; it’s about thinking through the practical realities of how a resource makes sense to a community, to a culture and to economics, local and global. That’s the only way you can hope to be able to develop it effectively.

“That’s why I support The Giants Club. The bringing together of Heads of States and experts mean that elephant states devise a plan that works to protect elephants, that has the necessary political backing as well as understanding the needs of the people who live amongst or near to elephant populations”

Strengthening commitments to combat illegal wildlife trade is not only about saving animals, but contributes towards greater social security and sustainable development. It’s an issue backed by Prince William, who will also attend the IWT conference in Hanoi, helping to increase understanding internationally.

“The fact that the Duke of Cambridge has got behind this issue is hugely significant,” Paul says. “Celebrity power is important, but it’s not just about picking up any celebrity to add their voice; having Prince William on board means the world listens.

“But that attention must turn into action on the ground. Whatever we do after the IWT meeting has to be coordinated and build on existing successes. We need renewed commitment from the international community to coordinate and develop projects from the ground up; only by doing that can we hope to stamp out illegal trade and save endangered species from extinction.”