Can a London Summit Save our Wildlife from Extinction?

Something historic happened in London on 13 February. Representatives from 41 countries, plus the European Union and a handful of multilateral environmental agencies, came together for the London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade.

Something historic happened in London on 13 February. Representatives from 41 countries, plus the European Union and a handful of multilateral environmental agencies, came together for the London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade.

They signed a Declaration signalling their intent to tackle this multi-billion-dollar global business which is devastating wildlife populations, destroying local economies, and threatening national and regional security.

Gathering together so many countries to focus on the crisis affecting wildlife across the globe is hugely significant. The participation of China, Vietnam and Indonesia - considered to be among the major consumer countries for wildlife goods - was a particularly important achievement, as was the engagement of many African and Asian range states for endangered wildlife.

The Summit was the culmination of numerous meetings, announcements and initiatives over recent months and years that together have elevated the 'status' of illegal wildlife trade to that of 'serious organised crime', and brought greater international focus. Recognition by the United Nations of the intrinsic value of wildlife, and the declaration of 3rd March as 'World Wildlife Day', shine a much needed and long overdue spotlight on what for many species could be our last opportunity to act.

So now that the Summit is over, the inevitable question remains: what next?

Cold hard cash

The signatories to the Summit declaration agreed on the need for 'decisive and urgent action'. As well as pledging to introduce wide-ranging practical measures, several key Summit participants have also committed additional resources, including a £10 million pledge from the UK's Department for International Development. This may sound like a big financial commitment, but it represents a tiny proportion of the foreign aid budgets managed by many of the countries concerned - the UK's overseas aid budget alone is around £11 billion.

The Summit recognised that illegal wildlife trade leads to corruption and disruption of local economies and livelihoods, and robs communities of their natural capital and cultural heritage. Organised transnational criminal syndicates are playing an increasing role, and in some cases proceeds from the trade are being used to fund militias and terrorist groups. This in turn may threaten national and regional security in some parts of the world.

Given the recognition of the seriousness of wildlife crime and its impacts on local economies and communities, and on national security, far greater financial commitments are needed. Money committed to fighting illegal wildlife trade also needs to be spent wisely and in a coordinated way.

Implementing international agreements

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the London Summit focussed on threats to elephants, rhinos and tigers, whose body parts are highly valued in illegal markets, principally in Asia. With tens of thousands of elephants being slaughtered each year for their tusks, more than 1,000 rhinos killed for their horns in 2013 in South Africa alone, and as few as 3,000 tigers thought to remain in the wild, these iconic and keystone species are clearly worthy of international attention.

However the illegal wildlife trade impacts a far wider range of species than this, from trees to fish, reptiles to a wide range of mammals (not just the big well-known ones), and the disruption to biodiversity and destabilisation of ecosystems that results is just as important as the impacts on individual species.

Summit participants have made a commitment to implement the resolutions and decisions adopted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). These include significant measures to protect rhinos, elephants, tigers as well as many other species affected by trade. CITES must not hold back from using its full range of sanctions against Parties that do not comply.

Cross- and inter-government collaboration

The countries represented at the Summit recognised the need for inter-departmental and inter-governmental coordination if illegal wildlife trade is to be tackled. This is vital, since government departments with a direct responsibility for environmental issues are often relatively weak and poorly resourced. The engagement of home and foreign offices, overseas development agencies, and the all-important treasuries, should bring far more political weight and practical resources to bear. International collaboration through the range of organisations involved in illegal wildlife crime, from enforcement and judicial mechanisms to funding agencies and to the UN Environment and Development Programmes, must be effectively coordinated to ensure maximum impact.

Working with civil society

Reducing the demand for, as well as the supply of, illegal wildlife products, is key to success, so the commitment to developing meaningful demand reduction efforts is welcome. The commitment for governments to work with civil society, business groups and other stakeholders on the ground is also good to see.

Humane Society International works closely with local communities and stakeholders to protect wildlife, so we know only too well how vital winning hearts and minds can be.

Projects and campaigns must be evidence-based with measurable outcomes, and governments must be prepared to utilise the experience of NGOs and others in designing and implementing strategies. The rhino horn demand reduction campaigns taking place now in Vietnam, operated by a partnership between the Vietnamese government authorities and HSI, offer good examples of how such partnerships can effectively deliver these kinds of programmes.

Discouraging illegal activity

Governments also need to be seen acting, if illegal wildlife crime and consumption are to be discouraged. The recent public destruction of ivory stockpiles by Gabon, the Philippines, the United States, France and China are to be welcomed, as are similar planned events in Hong Kong and Tanzania. These activities, some of them carried out by countries that have previously advocated legal trade in ivory, send out a clear message that any trade in these products is no longer acceptable. A global commitment to ban all domestic and international trade in the products of endangered wildlife would be a valuable addition.

Rooting out corruption

Governments must do all they can to ensure wildlife crime doesn't pay, through effective legal systems and deterrent penalties. The corruption on which criminal networks rely, and which so often protects key players in wildlife crime networks from being brought to account, needs to be rooted out.

Empowering local communities

Perhaps most important of all, local communities need to come to fully understand the value of wildlife, and be empowered to protect it, both for its own sake, and for the sake of their economic, social and cultural well-being.

I very much hope that the London Summit will be remembered as a watershed moment in the battle against illegal wildlife trade, a battle on which the very future of so many species depends. Whether it proves to be so depends on the willingness of all the participants to convert their fine words into action.

There is no time to lose.

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