Illegal Wildlife Trade

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 19th March 2014.

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Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Conservative, Chelmsford 11:00 am, 19th March 2014

It is a pleasure to attend yet again a debate in this Chamber that you are chairing, Dr McCrea. I am extremely grateful to have the opportunity to raise this important issue. As Mr Speaker rightly said during Foreign Office questions on 4 March, the issue is of considerable concern not only to right hon. and hon. Members, but to many people beyond this Chamber among the general public. We have a critical situation, because the illegal trade in wildlife is posing a significant threat to a number of species. There are primarily two reasons for that. Encroachment on natural habitats is causing considerable problems for a range of species, but even worse is the illegal trade that goes on around the world, which is posing a significant threat to many species.

After decades of conservation gains, the world is now dealing with what I believe is an unprecedented spike in the illegal wildlife trade, threatening all the gains of recent years. The situation is, to put it starkly, devastating. Let us take the question of ivory. It is estimated that 23 tonnes, representing 2,500 elephants, was seized in 2011, and I suspect that that is just the tip of the iceberg, because by definition, given that it is an illegal trade, one will never be able to get the whole picture. It will inevitably be worse than is shown by the statistics on what has actually been found by the authorities.

Poaching threatens the last of the wild tigers in the world. It is estimated that only 3,200 are left in the wild. That is as opposed to those that are in captivity. The use of tiger parts in traditional medicines is thought to have contributed to at least a 95% drop in the wild tiger population in the last century.

Let us look at the horrendous situation for rhinos. In 2010, an estimated 333 rhinos were poached for their horns in South Africa alone. That is one rhino every 30 hours. But ironically, the world’s largest seizure of rhino horn, which included 129 horns, occurred in Kensington in central London—not somewhere normally associated with rhinoceroses. It is thought that rhino poaching increased by 5,000% between 2007 and 2012, with one killed by a poacher every 10 hours. Last year, the western black rhino was declared extinct, sadly.

Since 2004, the central Africa region has lost 66% of its elephant population. That shows the sheer scale of the problem, notwithstanding the tremendous efforts that many countries in Africa are making to combat the illegal activities of poachers and others.

The problem is not restricted to wild animals. According to an excellent brief provided by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, there is, sadly, a decimation of African vultures going on at the moment. In southern Africa, eight out of nine vulture species are red-listed, with most in the high-threat categories of endangered and vulnerable. Recently, they have been facing the new threat of being poisoned en masse by elephant poachers, who believe that the vultures are exposing their illegal activities to the anti-poaching authorities. The massacre of 600 vultures by poachers in Namibia was preceded by the killing of 300 birds in early 2013 and 250 in Botswana in mid-2012. All those incidents took place during the peak vulture breeding season, so overall mortalities are much higher and there is an even more devastating impact on the future survival of the vulture population.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the poaching of saiga antelope for the saiga horn trade became a significant and major problem as well. Uncontrolled hunting of the antelope was driven by poor economic conditions and the possibility of selling horns for traditional Chinese medicine through the less controlled borders to Asia. After the ban on trade in rhinoceros horn in 1993, saiga horn was used as a substitute, leading to a decline in saiga numbers of more than 95% by the year 2000. As only the males grow horns, the selective poaching led to massive skewing in the sex ratio of the species, with the inevitable impact that that has on its survival rates for the future.

I am sure that you would agree, Dr McCrea, that there is a significant problem and, although a considerable amount is being done by the international community, we seem to be, in many respects, on a losing wicket, because of the increased activity in different parts of the world by those who are prepared to engage in this illegal trade. As I said earlier, because of the illegal nature of the trade, it is very difficult to get accurate figures for exactly what is going on, but the best estimate is that the global illegal wildlife trade is worth somewhere between £6 billion and £12 billion a year. That puts into perspective the pressures that there are on people to engage in this illegal activity, and the sheer scale of the problem that faces the world in seeking to challenge and reduce it.

Between 1970 and 2000, the population of species declined by an average of 40%, and the second-largest threat to species survival after habitat destruction is the illegal wildlife trade. Worryingly, London is a major hub for Europe’s illegal trade in endangered species. I congratulate the authorities on what they are doing to combat that. Operation Charm, led by the Metropolitan police, has resulted in the seizure of more than 30,000 endangered species items since 1995, but again that highlights the scale of the problem just here in London, and the challenge facing the authorities to maintain the momentum and ensure that they continue to be able to meet the challenges of reducing this crime. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister what more is being done by the law enforcement authorities and the international community to combat the illegal trade in the UK.

I pay tribute to the many dedicated and hard-working people around the world who are working to protect endangered species. At least 1,000 park rangers have been killed in the last decade. What action is being taken to give extra protection to such people? Significant attacks on, and the unlawful killing of, people who are working to reduce and minimise this crime will have an impact on others and discourage them from working in this field, because of the dangers that they and their families would face as a result of the ruthlessness of those engaged in what is essentially an extremely big business—that is what it is for those who sadly are successful in pursuing their illegal trade.

The recent London conference was a significant step towards reaching an international consensus, and towards getting co-operation to increase and enhance our ability to tackle this growing crime. As the Minister is aware, the countries that attended the conference signed the

London declaration, which included a number of actions that will hopefully help to eradicate the demand for wildlife products, strengthen law enforcement and support the development of sustainable livelihoods for communities affected by wildlife crime. The international community signed up to a number of actions within the declaration, including support for continuing the existing international ban on commercial trade in elephant ivory; renouncing the use within Governments of products from species threatened with extinction; amending legislation to make poaching and wildlife trafficking serious crimes under the terms of the UN convention against transnational organised crime; strengthening cross-border co-operation and support for regional wildlife law enforcement networks; and further analysis to better understand the links between wildlife crime and other organised crime and corruption, and to explore links to terrorism. The plan includes a commitment to an extended moratorium on ivory sales, and to put ivory stocks beyond economic use.

I am pleased that the UK Government announced that they will provide support to help the initiative get up and running. The London declaration and the elephant poaching initiative come at a critical time. Demand for illegal wildlife products has risen sharply in the past decade. It is laudable that countries attend such international conferences and sign up to initiatives and proposals that are seen as a positive step towards combating such crime, but we must do more than simply sign up to declarations and initiatives. We can talk the talk, but we must also walk the walk. I want to know from the Minister what will be done between now and next year’s meeting in Botswana to ensure that the declaration does not simply pay lip service to a range of laudable and badly needed initiatives, but is translated into real and proper action? What will the British Government do to ensure that countries that do not have a great ability to implement the declaration get assistance from the other countries that attended the conference? We must ensure that they play their full part in tackling the problem. They must roll back the increase in the illegal trade. Conservation and law enforcement measures must once again have a positive effect on crime.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 11:14 am, 19th March 2014

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr Burns on securing this timely debate on a subject that is of great concern to the Government and the international community. I know from looking through the record that my right hon. Friend championed it consistently at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other Departments.

As my right hon. Friend said, the rapid increase in the illegal wildlife trade and the poaching that feeds it is creating a crisis. Tens of thousands of elephants were killed last year, more than 1,000 rhinos lost their lives to poaching and trafficking, and tigers and many other species are under ever greater threat. In a debate organised by the Backbench Business Committee, my hon. Friend Zac Goldsmith characteristically painted a touching and vivid picture about the intelligence and thoughtfulness of elephants. He told the story of two elephants, Jenny and Shirley, who had been in captivity together. They were put in a zoo in early life—one was a calf at the time—and spent a year or so together, but they were then put in separate zoos, where they remained for 20 years. They were unexpectedly reunited at the end of their lives in a sanctuary in Tennessee. As my hon. Friend described it, the love and commitment that those two elephants still felt for each other after 20 years was absolutely touching. It is a disaster that so many of those wonderful creatures are being slaughtered for their ivory. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford said, it is not only charismatic animals such as the African elephant that are threatened, but lots of other species such as the African vulture.

The illegal wildlife trade is not only an environmental crisis but a serious global criminal industry. It is worth billions every year, and it is ranked alongside drugs, arms and people trafficking. There is increasing evidence of involvement by organised criminal gangs using ever more sophisticated weapons and equipment and exploiting political instability.

The lives of those working hard to protect endangered wildlife are at risk. At least 1,000 park rangers have been killed over the past decade alone. My right hon. Friend rightly highlighted that concern and asked what we can do to protect the rangers who do that difficult and dangerous task. Although it is the responsibility of individual countries to enforce the law, several actions in the declaration adopted by the London conference are about strengthening law enforcement. We have announced a £10 million fund, and I can confirm that we are looking at one or two projects to support that type of work and improve countries’ ability to enforce the law and protect park rangers carrying out that difficult task.

Tackling this organised criminality would help enhance the rule of law and improve stability and good governance. Those are the conditions that allow for the development of sustainable economic opportunities. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs saw for himself in Kenya last year the benefits that can come from concerted efforts to tackle the trade by working with local communities.

I want to say a little about the London conference, about which my right hon. Friend spoke. We recognise that the illegal wildlife trade is a global problem that needs a global solution. The UK has always been determined to play its part, which is why we were pleased to host the London conference on the illegal wildlife trade on 13 February. The conference was based on three key themes: first, improving law enforcement; secondly; reducing demand; and thirdly, creating alternative sustainable livelihoods for communities that have a problem with poaching.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and my DEFRA colleague Lord de Mauley chaired the conference. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry attended the morning plenary session. More than 40 countries attended and 10 international organisations were present. I am pleased to report that the conference was a great success. The ambitious political declaration that was endorsed by the 42 participating countries contained 25 specific commitments, including a requirement for Governments to renounce the use of any products from species threatened with extinction. Countries also committed to support the CITES—the convention on international trade in endangered species—commercial prohibition on international trade in elephant ivory until the survival of elephants in the wild is no longer threatened by poaching.

The declaration also contains a commitment to treat poaching and trafficking as serious organised crimes, in the same category as drugs, arms and people trafficking. Together, the 25 actions, with high-level political support, represent a turning point in the effort to halt and reverse the current poaching crisis that my right hon. Friend so eloquently explained.

The conference heard first hand from the Presidents of Botswana, Chad, Gabon and Tanzania, and from the Foreign Minister of Ethiopia, who announced the elephant protection initiative, which aims to secure new funding from private and public sources for the implementation of the African elephant action plan. The elephant protection initiative includes a commitment to an extended moratorium on ivory sales, as well as plans to put ivory stocks beyond economic use.

As I said, one of the aims of the elephant protection initiative is to generate additional private funding, and we understand that around $2 million has already been identified. The Foreign Secretary has said that, in principle, he is open to looking at whether some of the £10 million fund we have set aside could be used to support that initiative. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford said, it is important that action does not end with the conference and the declaration—we need the follow-through. We must ensure that commitments are translated into urgent, concrete actions on the ground in the weeks and months to come.

I would like to say a little about the next steps, the first of which is to ensure that we in the UK are meeting our commitments as effectively as possible. The London conference was the result of close working between four Government Departments—DEFRA, the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development and the Home Office. It was a good example of Departments coming together in a coherent, joined-up way, and that is the approach we want to promote going forward. The issue should not be left to any one Department because it crosses many different briefs. The fact that so many Ministers attended the conference underlined our commitment to such an approach.

My right hon. Friend asked what we in the UK are doing, particularly on law enforcement and the interception of illegal trade. In February, we published the document “UK Commitment to Action on the Illegal Wildlife Trade”, which set out what we are doing across Government. We are committed to reporting against that commitment in a year’s time. Action is already under way. For example, as part of our commitment to fighting the illegal wildlife trade, the UK recently formally extended the convention on international trade in endangered species to the British territory of Anguilla.

We have already announced that we will use a £10 million DFID funding package to support our partners in their efforts to tackle the trade, and we will soon announce how to apply for that fund.

The momentum generated by the London conference is also continuing internationally. It is important to note that several countries made announcements at the conference that demonstrated their commitment. For example, Canada announced an additional $2 million in emergency funding to combat the illegal wildlife trade in east and central Africa; Cameroon announced that its ongoing five-year emergency action plan to combat international wildlife crime, worth £120 million, will continue; the US announced its national strategy for combating wildlife trafficking; Gabon announced plans to impose new penalties for poachers and traffickers; and Ethiopia committed to destroying its ivory stockpiles. In addition to all that, of course, was the commitment I mentioned earlier to the elephant protection initiative, which a number of African countries are taking forward.

Those announcements were made at the conference, but it is worth pointing out that momentum has continued afterwards—Chad recently burned its 1.1 tonne ivory stockpile and Vietnam has strengthened its protection of endangered species. The challenge now is to build on and harness that momentum and ensure that the commitments in the London declaration are delivered. As my right hon. Friend mentioned, Botswana will host a follow-up conference in 2015 to review progress against the commitments made in the London declaration. The UK will support Botswana in its preparations for that.

In conclusion, I am pleased to have had the opportunity to highlight the success story of the recent London conference. It agreed ambitious measures, showed new political commitment, and marked a turning point in the effort to halt and reverse the current poaching crisis. The examples I have described of actions that we and our international partners are taking demonstrate the real international commitment to tackling the illegal wildlife trade.

I will emphasise again, however, that I completely understand my right hon. Friend’s point: we must sustain our action. We must not discuss the issue once a year but see little happening in between. The international community must work together to ensure that the 25 commitments made in the London declaration are translated into urgent, concrete actions on the ground. The UK has played a leading role, and we will continue to work with our international partners to maintain the high level of political attention and deliver outcomes on the ground.

We do not underestimate the challenge. Much work remains to be done, but through the London conference we have achieved a solid base for tackling and ending the appalling illegal wildlife trade.

Sitting suspended.