[Mr Joe Benton in the Chair] — Wildlife Crime

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:05 pm on 10th October 2013.

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Photo of Justin Tomlinson Justin Tomlinson Conservative, North Swindon 2:05 pm, 10th October 2013

It is an absolute pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Zac Goldsmith. Given his incredible wealth of knowledge and passion about this subject, there is clearly no pressure on me to deliver in my short speech. I congratulate Joan Walley and her fellow Committee members on their first-class, professional and vital report. This is an important opportunity to debate an incredibly important issue and, in particular, to highlight the absolute urgency of taking real action.

My interest in this subject is combined with my work with the International Fund for Animal Welfare. I had the honour of being the guest speaker at its event on combating international wildlife crime at the recent Conservative party conference. It was like being back at school: I had to read some serious documents and study lots of facts. My wife is incredibly passionate about this subject and does a lot of fundraising to support work on the issues, so I also had to be on my absolutely best behaviour.

The reality is that the number of forest elephants has fallen by 62% in 10 years, with the kill rate higher than the birth rate. As a layman, I initially focused just on ivory, but there are trades in big cat pelts, rhinoceros horns, bush meat, scales, antelope wool shawls, tortoise shells, bear gall bladders, shark fins and caviar. The list of unimaginable horrors goes on and on. Animals are used for culinary delicacies, traditional Asian medicines, pets, decorations, hunting trophies, clothing, leather products, jewellery and traditional crafts.

As senior and important as we all are in our respective communities, I was delighted that John Kerry, of all people, highlighted the issue at a recent conference. He said:

“How shockingly destructive and historically shameful it would be if we did nothing while a great species was criminally slaughtered into extinction. And yet, here we are in the midst of one of the most tragic and outrageous assaults on our shared inheritance that I’ve seen in my lifetime—where an elephant’s dead ivory is prized over its living condition, where corruption feeds on its body and soul, and where money only makes matters worse.”

To put the issue in context, the ivory trade has doubled since 2007 and the price of ivory is now $2,205 per kg, while the price of rhinoceros horn, from an animal which has been brought to the edge of extinction, is now a staggering $66,139 per kg. That is greater than the cost of gold or platinum; a rhinoceros horn the size of a bag of sugar would cost approximately £20,000.

My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park was spot on when he spoke about links to terrorist groups. Criminal groups, warlords, militants and terrorist groups are all taking advantage by utilising their drug-smuggling routes. This is large scale; it is a huge problem. The WWF estimates that the trade is worth somewhere between $15 billion and $25 billion, but compared with other transnational criminal activities, it carries a low risk of detection, small penalties and minimal consequences, which are attractive incentives and drivers for groups of smugglers. For example, fines are just £300 in India and £900 in Nepal. We are talking about a $25 billion industry, with the equivalent of a bag of sugar costing £20,000, so it is a no brainer that there are drivers and incentives for going into the trade. Groups are taking advantage of their networks and exploiting local people in abject poverty, because the financial incentives prove so compelling. Smugglers are also corrupting officials, and killing the rangers paid to protect these vital animals. There have been more than 1,000 deaths of rangers in 35 different countries over the past decade.

What are the chances of combating global and terrorist organisations? The Government have made a start, but we need to consider a long-term commitment to the national wildlife crime unit. We do not want it to have to lobby every year to secure funding; we want it to get on with the task in hand. We have an incredible opportunity to build on the forthcoming London summit. We, the British, can lead internationally. The Minister, whom I congratulate on his new position, will do an incredibly fine job. He has a great opportunity to lead on this important issue and to be proud on behalf of the UK.

We need to consider how we can provide viable alternatives for communities in abject poverty. There are opportunities, I suggest, within the foreign aid budget to create sustainable alternatives. We need to look for commercial opportunities. A good example is the work that the International Fund for Animal Welfare has done with whaling in Iceland. Tourists are now flocking to see whales in real life. It would not help that commercial and profitable trade if people were to see them being butchered for meat.

Working with IFAW, we want to see that wildlife crime is treated seriously, on a par with drugs and human trafficking, and that requires international pressure. We want to see other countries prioritise the matter, too. We need to co-ordinate international action, especially on law enforcement capacity and developing effective judicial systems, which come naturally to us but perhaps not so naturally to some other countries where such crimes are prevalent.

We need to encourage, develop and implement regional strategies in areas such as central Africa and the horn of Africa, and recognise the new challenges that come from China. Huge Chinese investment into many African countries brings with it Chinese workers, thereby bringing demand to the heart of the country and removing the need to smuggle the goods. We must take action in those countries and address the growing demand and availability of ivory, as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park highlighted. We saw demand drop, but now it is coming back strong. Worryingly, 80% of Chinese people do not realise that an elephant has to be killed to get ivory.

Yesterday, the Public Accounts Committee, of which I am a member, took evidence from representatives of the UK Border Force. I am delighted to say that when they were asked about two of their performance targets—the number of seizures under CITES and seizures of products of animal origin—they recognised that more training and support was needed. Next year, additional funding has been found, which is a good thing in such straitened times. In evidence, we were told that it was difficult to recognise the products and when they are recognised it is not always clear what needs to be done, so I welcome more training.

In conclusion, I hope that our new, exciting and fantastic Minister will pick wildlife crime as one of the issues that he can be exceptionally proud of dealing with. I hope he will be articulate and lead at the forthcoming conference, giving this country the opportunity to be at the head of this issue. I want Britain to be proud and to make a difference.