Why we are losing the battle to save wildlife


Paula Kahumbu, The Guardian

Date Published


The first ever World Wildlife Day this week provided few reasons to celebrate. What’s going wrong?

Last year the UN General Assembly voted to declare March 3rd World Wildlife Day, “to celebrate the fantastic diversity of life on earth” and “remind us of the urgency and responsibility to care for and protect it”. This date is also the anniversary of the creation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1973.

In recent articles on this blog I have described some positive developments in Kenya’s ongoing battle against wildlife crime. The Kenyan Director of Public Prosecutions Mr Keriako Tobiko, chose this day to announce a further significant move: the setting up of a fully-fledged and specially trained Wildlife Crimes Prosecution Unit. 

More good news this week came from Nepal, which announced a full year of zero poaching of rhinos, tigers and elephants for period ending in February 2014. “A national level commitment is key to encouraging complementing efforts, right down to the grassroots, in order to address this biggest threat to wildlife” said Megh Bahadur Pandey, Director General of Nepal’s National Parks. 

But there has been plenty of bad news too. Last week on the blog I reported the shameful decision of a Ugandan court to return 2.9 tonnes of smuggled ivory to the traffickers. 

Overall the state of Africa’s wildlife looks bleak. Elephant ivory trafficking is at an all time high and populations are declining almost everywhere. Tanzania’s elephant population has declined by 66% since 2009. Rhino Poaching is also rising, with over 1,000 rhino killed in Africa in 2012. Rhinos are now extinct western Africa. 

The immediate threat to wildlife in Africa is from illegal trafficking of wildlife products. This is now a huge global business, controlled by organised crime. The reasons why the battle against the traffickers is being lost are simple to describe, but hard to put right. 

First, countries with wildlife, despite some recent progress, still aren’t doing enough to crack down on poaching and smuggling within their borders. Second, countries like China whose demand for illegal wildlife products drives the trafficking, are turning a blind eye to the problem – or worse. Thailand, another key consuming country, didn’t even bother to send a delegate to the recent international conference on wildlife crime in London. 

Thirdly, western countries aren’t doing enough to support the efforts of poor countries targeted by wildlife traffickers, like Kenya and Nepal, that don’t have the resources to take on organised crime on their own. 

To mark World Wildlife Day, US Secretary of State John Kerry and two other top officials authored an article in National Geographic reaffirming their Government’s commitment to combat wildlife poaching and illegal trade, and calling on US citizens to “join your government, your friends, your neighbors, and your communities in this fight daily”. 

I believe western leaders like Obama when they say they want to put an end to illegal trafficking. But they don’t have the appetite or the guts to take on countries like China that are the chief culprits in the present crisis. 

Globally, wildlife crime is just one factor in the crisis confronting world wildlife. Continued deforestation and climate change are the other forces in a three-sided vice that is literally squeezing the life out of the world’s wildlife.

This should be of huge concern to everyone on the planet. It isn’t. Outside of specialist agencies like CITES, wildlife is low on the political agenda. The reasons for this are complex, but one contributing factor is the systematic failure of the mainstream media to give the problem the attention it deserves. 

Take a look at the following video. It shows an extended interview on Kenyan TV in which I took part together with former Director of Public Prosecutions Philip Murgor, board member of WildlifeDirect, the organisation I work for.

In his introduction, the interviewer, Jeff Koinange, remarks that in Africa “nobody seems to care” about wildlife. Maybe. But where else in the world would you see an hour of prime time TV giving over to a passionate discussion about how to save wildlife? 

The media’s neglect of this issue is shameful. The catastrophic situation facing the world’s wildlife should be headline news every day. But this story – like the real human stories that matter – is squeezed out by the media’s obsession with the zombie dance of speculative financial capital.

What’s required is political leadership – from above and below. From above, African leaders should make wildlife – not sexual politics – the defining focus of African liberation in the 21st century. We can all help to create political leadership from below, by using social media to denounce the inaction, and turn the spotlight on the issues that really matter.