‘Wildlife crime makes us all poorer’, says Theresa May


Damian Carrington, The Guardian

Date Published

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The mass trafficking of wildlife impoverishes everyone in the world and must be treated with the same severity as drug and people trafficking, according to leaders from 80 nations gathered at the Illegal Wildlife Trade conference in London on Thursday.

“The illegal wildlife crime makes us all poorer, not just those countries robbed of their wildlife, natural habitat and resources, but all of us who are cheated of our natural inheritance, the rich diversity of our living world,” said Theresa May, UK prime minister, on Thursday. “We need to treat this billion-dollar criminal enterprise in the same way we do other serious and organised crimes.”

Other challenges raised by leaders included the tension between fast-growing human populations and wildlife, the need to raise and enforce the penalties for wildlife crime, and the danger to the stability of nations where international criminal gangs operate.

Ali Bongo Ondimba, president of Gabon, said: “The illegal international trade in wild animals is not just a wildlife issue, it is an issue that cripples economies, poisons and degrades ecosystems, corrupts our judiciaries, weakens our rule of law and also ruins lives.

“The criminals who slaughter our magnificent elephants, lions and tigers, who empty our oceans and forests, they even sometimes use their ill-gotten gains to fund rebels and terrorist groups. This is a critical issue for Africa and an issue that we, the international community, have thus far failed to take seriously enough. We cannot do it alone, so please stand with us.”

A series of initiatives were announced at the conference, including a Wildlife Financial Taskforce involving over 20 global banks that will target money laundering to trap wildlife criminals, and the Ivory Alliance 2024, which aims to have 30 more countries committed to national bans on ivory sales by that date. The UK government is also extending the training provided by its army to rangers in African nations.

Yoweri Museveni, president of Uganda, said his nation’s population is set to grow from 40m to 102m by 2050 and will increasingly come into conflict with wildlife if the country’s citizens remain predominantly farmers. “In order to support conservation you must also talk about modernisation [of the economy],” he said, “In that case it will be easier to manage conservation.”

He also warned of threat to nation states: “The illegal wildlife trade continues to erode state authority and fuel civil conflicts and, in the process, threaten national stability.”

Jeremy Hunt, the UK’s foreign secretary, told the conference: “Our task is to address one of the greatest challenges facing humankind.” He noted that the global population had multiplied fivefold in the last century: “As we have succeeded other species have gone dramatically into decline.” He said 60% of vertebrate animals had perished in the last 50 years and that humans now far outnumbered wild animals.

“The interests of humanity cannot be separated from the interests of wildlife – the one depends on the other,” he said. “If we fail to act, quite simply we will never be forgiven.”

The Duke of Cambridge, who convened the Wildlife Financial Taskforce, also addressed the conference, saying: “My plea to protect this delicate balance between growing human populations and diminishing endangered wildlife is not purely emotional. It makes economic sense. Poaching is an economic crime against ordinary people and their future.

“It is heartbreaking to think that by the time my children, George, Charlotte and Louis, are in their 20s, elephants, rhinos and tigers might well be extinct in the wild. I for one am not willing to look my children in the eye and say that we were the generation that let this happen on our watch.”

The trafficking of wildlife, including for ivory, rhino horns, pangolins and turtles, is estimated to be worth $23bn a year, making it the fourth most profitable criminal enterprise after the trafficking of drugs, guns and people. Weak penalties and poor legal enforcement have made it a lucrative and low-risk activity for criminal syndicates.

But sentences are now being ramped up; Bongo said the prison term for ivory smuggling was being raised from six months to 10 years, and double that if it was linked to organised crime. In Vietnam, where much of the smuggled rhino horn ends up, sentences have been raised to 15 years, while in Kenya, anyone caught smuggling the body parts of an endangered species now faces life in jail.

The US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, told delegates that his country’s president, Donald Trump, supported tough action on wildlife criminals: “We can’t allow the illegal extermination of entire populations of species. To the contrary, we must use our god-given resources and legal institutions to advance and defend the survival – and not the annihilation – of God’s majestic creatures.” He said the US was committing another $90m to the fight against wildlife trafficking.

When action is taken, Hunt said, progress can be made: “When laws are enforced and smugglers prosecuted, wildlife populations can and do recover. The number of wild tigers in Nepal, for example, has doubled in the last nine years.”