Prince William has persuaded China to take ‘significant’ steps to end the illegal wildlife trade and is set to unveil a breakthrough in tackling transport routes for poachers, former Foreign Secretary William Hague has revealed.
Lord Hague, who chairs an anti-poaching taskforce on behalf of the Duke Of Cambridge, said that he had made an invaluable difference in getting Beijing to cut the demand for elephant ivory, rhino horn and other products.
Interviewed by The Huffington Post UK, Mr Hague revealed that the Chinese had decided to send a delegation for the first time to a meeting of the group in London today, and that a concrete plan of action was due in the New Year.
Fuelled by fresh public anger over incidents like the killing of ‘Cecil the Lion’, as well as the decapitation of elephants in Zimbabwe, Prince William’s Unite for Wildlife charity is set to unveil new measures to curb the transportation routes on which poachers depend.
Ahead of the taskforce meeting, which will bring together diplomats, airline and shipping chiefs as well as global wildlife charities, Lord Hague said that the Duke’s huge global profile and his role in convening the group and pushing for change in China had proved decisive.
Lord Hague pointed to figures showing the need for urgency in ending the illegal wildlife trade.
“It’s a huge crisis, particularly in African wildlife,” he said. “About 35,000 elephants are being killed by poachers every year. In central Africa, more than 64% of the elephant population has been killed in the last decade.
“And 95% of the world’s rhinos have been killed in the past 40 years. Rhino poaching in South Africa was 13 dead animals 2007 was 1215 animals last year.
“This is on a cataclysmic scale. There will not be these animals any more unless we something about it very quickly.”
The transportation taskforce - which involves airlines like Emirates and Keyna Airways, as well as port owners such as Dubai Ports World - will meet in private today ahead of a public announcement in 2016.
But Lord Hague said that the Chinese were also now onboard, following the Duke of Cambridge’s visit to the country and his recent TV address to the Chinese to urge them to end their traditional practice of buying ivory and rhino horn.
The former Foreign Secretary, who first gathered nations together to discuss the illegal trade in 2014, said that the main aim was to cut off transport routes out of Africa but also to slash demand coming from South East Asia.
“The amount that is being offered for ivory or rhino horn in south east Asia has become so high it is worth more in weight than platinum or gold, and that creates high prices in Africa,” he said.
“It fuels corruption within the public sector in the relevant countries so it creates a wider human problem as well.
“I’m passionate about wildlife in general, but I picked this up as Foreign Secretary because we were one of the few countries in the world with the knowledge, the connections to do something about it.”
Lord Hague, who was made a peer this year after stepping down from the Commons - said that his transport taskforce was hammering out concrete plans for progress, but in the end the best solution was to cut off the demand.
The economic slowdown in China is partly responsible, but there are signs the Duke's campaign is working. This week the charity Save The Elephants reported a sharp drop in the price of ivory in China.
Prince Harry, with a slaughtered rhino in South Africa early in December
“The Duke - and of course Prince Harry too - are passionate about this because of their knowledge of Africa. I hope it will be quite a significant meeting. The fact that China is attending is an important step forward,” Mr Hague said.
“The real answer, the ultimate answer is to remove the demand. Since the Duke’s visit a year ago to China, they have taken a lot of significant steps. One of them is they are going to send officials to our meeting, which is a big change from their point of view,” he said.
“They have made a commitment now to phase out the legal market for ivory, they have been taking stricter measures on transportation of illegal wildlife, they have destroyed a stock of ivory which sends a signal that they are determined it will have no value.
“They have announced strong penalties now for people convicted of smuggling so I think over the last year there has been a very, very welcome and clear direction from the Chinese government and we are looking to encourage that.”
Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge greet Chinese President Xi Jinping on his visit to the UK this year
In a landmark TV appearance on Chinese state TV in October, Prince William warned his audience that unless the demand for poached animal parts ceased, elephants and other endangered species will be extinct by the time children born this year – including his daughter Princess Charlotte – reach the age of 25. “Rhino horn cannot cure cancer,” he said.
Lord Hague paid tribute to the Duke for his own personal leadership on the issue.
“His role is very important, in two respects. One is that all the signs are that his visit has made a big impact on China. And he did a television address in China a few weeks ago so he’s sustained this work with China and I think that has made an impact. And someone of his prominence in the world can do that,” he said.
“The other way is in convening power, the power that the Royal Family does still have to bring people together to work on a problem. This concentration of people around the table is quite remarkable, it’s CEOs or Secretary Generals so that their organisation really does commit to this. And that is achieved by the Duke of Cambridge calling it together. I chair it but it is under his name, it’s under his auspices. We held our first meeting in Kensington Palace and it does make a huge difference. “
The Chinese had initially agreed a one-year ban on ivory, a move that some felt made prices higher and fuelled the trade, but since then Beijing has moved, Lord Hague said.
“They have since gone further to a near total ban. They haven’t implemented that yet but they are committed to do that. And the fact they are coming to this gathering of the task force is very important.”
The taskforce brings together for the first time at a senior level those who work in the transport industry -the International Maritime Organisation, IATA the airline association and world customs organisations - with charities such as the World Wide Fund for Nature and the World Conservation Society.
The group was set up a year ago after a speech by Prince William to the World Bank in the US.
“We have 17 individual organisations around the table. I chair it and It’s our final meeting to decide the recommendations,” he said.
“They are around three areas: a zero tolerance commitment by airlines and shipping companies to communicate with their staff and their customers against the wildlife trade,” Mr Hague revealed.
“There’s a second area which is to do with getting timely information to the transport industry about possible wildlife shipments and a commitment from them to do something about it.
“And there’s a third area of raising the standards of the ports in the affected areas, a lot of those ports are in East Africa. And we have Dubai Ports World are helping us out on how other ports can raise their technological and security standards to help them detect wildlife crime.”
He added: “In the New Year we will publish those at a press conference. This is not just going to be a report that has some recommendations and everybody puts on a shelf, it’s going to involve the industry doing something.
“And they’ve started. But without having to change national or international law, which would of course take years. And we haven’t got years to save this situation.”
Lord Hague said the three-point plan due in the New Year was a vitally necessary but not sufficient part of the answer to stopping the trade.
“This is about what we do to mitigate the problem, while we are working on the demand. This is about keeping enough animals alive for long enough that if we do manage to change the demand for these products in China, Vietnam and Thailand, there will still be a living population of elephants and rhinos to benefit from that.”
The bodies of decapitated elephants discovered in Zimbabwe in November
He said he had been struck by not only the recent killing of ‘Cecil the lion’, but also reports of the decapitation of elephants decapitated from the same area of Zimbabwe.
“The public outrage at these things does show that when people hear what is going on they are very concerned about it. But a lot of the time this takes place out of sight,” he said.
Referring to legal hunting and trophy gathering by wealthy Western hunters in Africa, he said: “I don’t agree with that either. In countries where there is a legal [hunting]…they are paying for that.
“But poaching is illegal in the countries where they are doing it. Whatever people’s motives, it’s time to stop killing these animals and the work we are doing is intended to make it much, much harder to transport such products to those who will pay for them.”
Lord Hague is more famed for his campaign as Foreign Secretary - alongside Angelina Jolie - to combat violence against women in conflict.
But wildlife protection has also been his other passion, and as a lifelong member of the World Wide Fund for Nature, he is determined to use his post-government career to combat ivory and rhino poachers, as well as those who traded tiger claws and stuffed tiger cubs, animal skins and pangolin meat.
“I’ve always been involved in various ways in the countryside or the environment. When I was Secretary of State for Wales, I controversially turned down a barrage at Newport across the river because of the impact it would have on fish life in the River Usk, some people thought I was very eccentric. But I think wildlife issues are important in public policy.”
“Quite aside from politics, I’m personally interested. It’s tremendously British thing. You can gather from the taskforce there are people from many different nationalities in it.
“But it’s a British characteristic, the volume of mail that MPs receive on animal welfare issues is always colossal. And I think there’s a very strong British feeling about this so I think I’m part of that.”
So, is the campaign to keep fox hunting banned a key part of that British instinct for animal welfare?
“No, they are not related because here we are talking about animals that will go extinct, that are being poached to their complete destruction for financial gain. And that’s a pretty different situation to the number of foxes that we have got around Britain so I don’t draw any analogy between those two things.”