It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I congratulate Joan Walley on initiating this important debate, and on making an excellent and impassioned speech, as ever. I take this opportunity to congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend George Eustice, on his appointment, and I sincerely thank my hon. Friend Richard Benyon for his brilliant work on reforming the disastrous common fisheries policy, his work on natural capital and his personal commitment to tackling the illegal trade in ivory.
I recognise that the debate covers an enormous range of subjects, but I would like to focus my remarks on the illegal trade in ivory. Hon. Members probably know that up to 40,000 elephants, on average, are killed every year. That equates to one every 15 minutes. If that rate were to apply continuously, it would render the species extinct in the wild within 10 years. It is a tragedy, by any standard, that Africa has already lost some 90% of its elephants in the past half-century. What makes it an even greater tragedy is that the world so nearly put an end to that madness a few decades ago. In 1989, a worldwide ban on the international trade in ivory was approved by CITES, levels of poaching fell dramatically—not completely, but dramatically—and the black market prices of ivory slumped.
However, only 10 years later, malignant interests were able to have their way, as ever, and so-called “one-off” sales were allowed. For example, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe were allowed an experimental one-off sale of more than 49,000 kg of ivory to Japan. In 2002, a further one off-sale was approved, which resulted in 105,000 kg of ivory being shipped to China and Japan. With so much legitimate ivory, if there is such a thing, on the market, illegal ivory was easy to pass off, and demand simply rocketed. More elephant tusks were seized in 2011 than in any year since 1989, when the trade was banned. Sierra Leone lost its last wild elephant in 2009, and Senegal has only a handful or two—between five and 10—elephants left. Congo has lost 90% of them. I could go on through all the African elephant range states.
This intelligent, thoughtful creature is being wiped from the earth, and not for noble reasons. By and large, they are being butchered so that mindless people—mostly, I am afraid to say, the middle classes in China—can buy trinkets, chopsticks, toothpicks, combs and the like. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North has pointed out, they are being hunted down for purposes that are even more sinister, if that is possible, with ivory tusks and rhino horns being hoarded as investment opportunities that rise in value as the species are depleted. It is hard to imagine anything more revolting, but it is happening.
Blood ivory is big business, and it is increasingly sophisticated. In May, 26 elephants were massacred by 17 poachers carrying Kalashnikov rifles in the Dzanga-Ndoki national park, a world heritage site in the Central African Republic that until then had been considered a safe haven for elephants.
All this matters in itself, but anyone tempted to imagine that it is a remote or secondary concern to people in this country should think again, because, as we have heard, this dark industry fuels terrorism and the worst forms of violence around the world. The Foreign Secretary recognised that in his recent comments at the UN in New York, when he said that
“the illegal trade in these animals is not just an environmental tragedy; it strikes at the heart of local communities by feeding corruption and undermining stability in what are already fragile states. And the profits from the trade pose an increasing threat to security by funding criminal gangs and terrorism.”
Only last month, the Foreign Office stated that it was aware of reports that al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda-backed Somali terror group, is being funded by ivory. As if to vindicate that, only two weeks later, there were the appalling attacks at the Westgate mall in Nairobi. Some 40% of al-Shabaab’s funding is thought to come from ivory. The issue therefore affects everyone. Blood ivory has helped to finance al-Qaeda. It has funded Joseph Kony’s abhorrent Lord’s Resistance Army, and Sudan’s murderous Janjaweed organisation, and so on. It has to stop.
Although our country is not populated by wild elephants, this Government have a very strong role to play. I was pleased that the Foreign Secretary included a reference to the illegal wildlife trade in the leaders’ communiqué at the G8 summit, and I know that he takes a personal interest in this subject. I am also pleased that the Government will host a high-level London conference on the illegal wildlife trade next February. I hope that the Minister has had time to familiarise himself with, and will tell us more about, the early priorities for the conference.
I know that the Government are considering what support, if any, to provide for the African elephant action plan, which was adopted in 2010 by all 38 African elephant range states, and which represents an agreement on a series of ambitious objectives. It would be useful to hear the Minister’s thoughts about that.
The Environmental Audit Committee report that has triggered this debate said many things, but I want to quote one of its recommendations. I am being repetitive, but this is crucial. In our report, which was unanimously signed off, we said that
“the Government should focus attention on the damaging effect of ‘one-off’ sales of impounded ivory, which undermine the international CITES regime and fuel demand for ivory products, and seek an unequivocal international ban on all forms of ivory trade.”
Given the effects of the partial legitimisation of the trade, this is really a black-and-white issue, and I hope that the Minister will provide the clearest possible endorsement of that.
Finally, the good news is that opposition to the illegal wildlife trade in China is growing. That is clear from the fact that China’s largest online marketplace, Taobao, has banned a range of wildlife products: tiger bone, rhino horn, elephant ivory, bear bile, turtle shell, pangolins—I do not even know what they are—and shark fin are on that long list. That big step would not have happened were it not for a changing tide among Chinese consumers. However, progress clearly is not fast enough. I imagine that the Chinese premier, by one stroke of his pen, could shut down the ivory carving factories. I urge the Government to use every diplomatic lever available to accelerate such a process and to prevent the annihilation of a magnificent animal.