Elephants have dominated recent headlines as the world wakes up to the threat they face. From the latest data revealing a shocking decline in global populations, with roughly 27,000 savannah elephants a year being lost, to Government proposals on closing the modern British ivory market and the CITES conference in Johannesburg, it's clear now is a significant moment for global conservation efforts. Next month sees Hanoi host a global conference on tackling the illegal wildlife trade - the third in a series of conferences which began in London two years ago. With international consensus and political attention, there is a window of opportunity to take a significant step forward in our fight to protect the species. However, the window is shrinking and will not remain open forever.
Last month, in response to significant public support and following campaigning from NGOs , the Government announced new measures on the UK's domestic ivory market, designed to strengthen enforcement of restrictions on 'modern day ivory' dating from 1947. After years campaigning against this immoral trade, it is encouraging that our leaders accept there is a problem with ivory being sold in Britain's shops and market stalls.
Speaking at Conservative Party Conference, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson claimed these reforms would "make the UK's rules some of the toughest in the world and help ensure that the majestic elephant is around for centuries". I can't fault the latter part of the ambition, but the first part glosses over the fact that the current proposals are too narrow in scope.
The focus on post 1947 ivory is a red herring. It ignores the fact that the vast majority of ivory on sale in the UK dates from before this cut-off, so the proposals will only cover a tiny fraction of the UK market. Worked ivory from before 1947 will continue to be available, and its presence will continue to provide a hiding place and fuel demand for the continuing trade in illegal ivory across the world.
This is not a sustainable position. If the Government is serious about tackling the global wildlife trade, it needs to go further and listen to our concerns as it consults on the proposals over the coming months. We stand ready to engage and help. There should be no further delay to moving forward with the near-total ban on ivory, thereby fulfilling the pledge made in the two most recent Conservative Party manifestoes.
The Government's apparent reticence to move quickly and decisively is mirrored by the EU's weak position. At this month's crucial wildlife trade conference in Johannesburg, where delegates debated the most crucial conservation issues facing the planet, both the UK and the EU lagged far behind the decisive leadership showed by, China, the US and the vast majority of African States.
The good news is a motion calling for the closure of all domestic ivory markets to match the current moratorium on international trade was adopted by consensus. However, consensus was only achieved by watering down the original motion. Now all parties are "recommended" to close their domestic markets "where [they are] connected to the illegal market."
This is a classic fudge. In trying to please everyone, the issue has become clouded with uncertainty. What is the definition of 'illegal trade'? What mechanisms will be put in place to prove any connection? What happens once the connection is proved? The motion was frustratingly silent on these points. This woolly compromise will not help enforcement efforts across the globe. Instead, it will provide countries with wiggle room to evade their responsibility. Two steps forward; one step back.
In a sign of its significance, the original motion was backed by the vast majority of African countries facing huge problems with elephant poaching, including Botswana, Gabon and Kenya. Most disappointingly, the European Union backed this compromise - shirking its responsibilities, going against the wishes of the European Parliament, and ignoring the wishes of the peoples of Europe.
The EU's misstep has not gone unnoticed. As the Foreign Secretary said in Birmingham, "our departure from the EU means we can develop policies that are tailored to our most precious habitats and wildlife - not a one size fits all approach for 28 Member States." Fine words: now we need to see the action and fast.
The UK Government must realise that their policy represents only a first step. The UK market is inextricably linked to the global illegal trade. In September a report from by enforcement monitor group TRAFFIC concluded that 'the UK plays a role in illegal ivory trade, at both import and re-export, but in particular as a transit country'. This must be stopped.
Likewise, any proposals which do not cover older ivory will fail to have a meaningful impact on the British ivory market. They will also not satisfy the British public, who have been clear that the Government must step up to protect elephants. Polling published last month showed that 85% of the British public support a ban on the ivory trade.
At the heart of this issue is the future of elephants. Are we prepared to let them become extinct, with old ivory products all that remain of these once great animals? Or will we step up and take action to save them? We must act now and hope that next month's conference in Hanoi will be matched by commitments on the ground from countries, including the UK, to protect elephants once and for all. An elephant is killed for its ivory every 15 minutes. The Government has the tools to act, but it does not have the luxury of time.