As politicians and environmentalists gather in Botswana this week, there are calls for countries to show they are serious by jailing the crime bosses behind the poaching.
This is just one subspecies, but soon the planet’s remaining 28,500 rhinos could be under threat from the illegal wildlife trade. Worth up to ￡12 billion (US$17.89 billion) a year, it has joined drugs, arms and human trafficking as one of the world’s biggest crime rackets. Ground zero in this “wildlife war” is Africa, and the conservationists are losing as animals are slaughtered on an industrial scale to meet demand for horn and ivory in newly affluent Asian countries.
Urgent solutions will be debated this week in Kasane, Botswana, as politicians and environmentalists gather for a follow-up to last year’s much-trumpeted London conference on the crisis. Hosted by the British government and princes Charles, William and Harry, 46 countries signed up to a “London declaration” that promised to address corruption, adopt legislation for tougher penalties against poachers and recruit more law enforcement officers.
Illustration: Mountain people
Then-British foreign secretary William Hague announced at the time: “I believe today we have begun to turn the tide.”
However, more than a year later, when the Kasane summit reviews whether these commitments have been implemented, it seems likely that some will be found wanting. Despite a celebrity-led drive to raise awareness in China and Vietnam, where horn is coveted as an ingredient in traditional medicine or as a status symbol, a record 1,215 rhinos were killed last year in South Africa, 20 percent more than in 2013.
At least 220 chimpanzees, 106 orangutans, 33 bonobos and 15 gorillas have been lost from the wild over the past 14 months, according to estimates by the Great Apes Survival Partnership. Elephants also remain under siege — at least 20,000 were poached annually from 2011 to 2013, according to the UN — although countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda have fought back with some measure of success over the past year.
“The numbers are still going up and they don’t make us any happier,” African Wildlife Foundation chief executive Patrick Bergin said. “The most concrete number is rhinos in South Africa. While that number is still going in the wrong direction, I don’t think we can say we’ve turned the corner.”
Arguably the biggest setback since the London conference has been the failure to arrest, prosecute and convict all but a handful of players in the transnational wildlife mafia.
Bergin said he had attended one recent meeting where there was talk of progress, but “the glaring silence in the room was the lack of successful prosecutions.”
“We don’t see people going to jail. It’s easy to say we’re putting more dogs at airports or doing more training, but the international community is only going to get serious about this when we see people going to jail. We need to see a preponderance of prosecutions and sentences handed down that sends a message to the traffickers that it’s not worth the risk,” he said.
The concern is shared by Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network.
“In all of this, the judiciary in many countries is lagging behind the times. A white South African who was reportedly a major player in the trade and his cohorts were arrested, but got out on bail. Organized crime can have the best legal guns in the country and those involved in rhino crime are heavily lawyered up,” Traffice rhino program coordinator Tom Milliken said.
South Africa, which is home to 90 percent of Africa’s rhinos, has appointed a panel of 21 experts to examine the viability of a legal rhino horn trade.
Milliken accused it of failing to show leadership or political will.
“One of the biggest disappointments has been the lack of participation and profile of South Africa,” he said. “It has a very strong conservation record historically, but it is currently the epicenter of the rhino horn trade: More are being killed in South Africa than ever before. We’re starting to see greater evidence of internal corruption in South Africa that’s aiding and abetting the trade. We’ve not seen the government stepping up.”
Four out of five rhino poachers in South Africa come from neighboring Mozambique, one of the world’s poorest countries, where villagers are tempted by the promise of money.
“Mozambique’s record since the London conference has been abysmal. Its first report came late and is barely worth the paper it’s written on. It’s a real failure of intent,” Save the Rhino international director Cathy Dean said.
The scale of impunity was vividly illustrated when Bartholomaus Grill, a German journalist with Der Spiegel, went to Mozambique to investigate the supply chain from South Africa through go-betweens to the horns’ ultimate buyers in Vietnam, where they fetch up to US$65,000 a kilo — more valuable than gold.
When he visited the home of a notorious poaching kingpin, Grill was taken hostage by an angry mob and threatened with death. Far from offering help, the local police appeared to be under the kingpin’s thumb.
Just as South Africa is hardest hit by rhino poaching, Tanzania is losing more elephants than any other country: an estimated 10,000 in 2013. Yet in contrast to South Africa’s conspicuous absence from the London conference, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete showed up and has been praised for toughening law enforcement over the past year.
In December last year, Feisal Ali Mohammed, an alleged organized crime boss and leading figure in the ivory trade, was arrested by Interpol agents in Dar es Salaam.
Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, administrator of the UN Development Programme, visited the east African country after the London conference.
“One of the things we were endeavoring to do in Tanzania was raise awareness among the judiciary of the seriousness of the crime and what this criminal trade is doing to Tanzania’s prospects,” she told the Observer in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, last week.
“You can do a calculation that shows that an elephant alive is worth a million dollars to the economy over the course of its life. An elephant dead gives some local — how much, a couple of hundred dollars, who knows? — which is big money for them, but petty cash when it comes to overall benefits,” Clark said.
“It does require a lot of mobilization of local communities around positive, constructive development to stop it; otherwise people go to the guys with guns and the money to get their income,” she added.
Politicians in Tanzania say they are aware of the need to tackle poverty.
“The villages that surround these sanctuaries have to somehow be taken care of in a manner that people do not feel that ‘we have to help poachers to poach so we can make a living,” said Tanzanian Deputy Minister of Communication, Science and Technology January Makamba, a potential presidential candidate this year.
“If local communities see benefits of conservation in their livelihoods, they can be the first defenders of wildlife. Otherwise, if you take an approach where it’s necessary to bring an army and local communities look at them with suspicion, they’re part of the enemy — you occupy with the villages. That cannot be of benefit,” Makamba said.
“The issues of poaching and logging are issues of governance and poverty. Corruption is the center of it. You deal with corruption, you are halfway to dealing with the problem of poaching,” he added.
Whatever the shortcomings, the London conference is widely credited with raising awareness and putting the wildlife trade on the international agenda. For the first time in years, a majority of illegal wildlife consignments last year were seized on African soil rather than by authorities overseas.
Prince William announced a taskforce that will work with airlines and shipping companies to stop the transport of illegal wildlife.
Earlier this month Uhuru Kenyatta, the president of Kenya — which has about 38,000 elephants today compared with 167,000 in 1973 — burned 15 tonnes of ivory to show opposition to the trade.
Ethiopia followed suit, destroying its entire stockpile of ivory — an estimated 6.1 tonnes of raw tusks, carvings, trinkets and jewelry.
Meanwhile, at the demand end, Thailand has introduced sweeping laws and regulations and launched a huge public campaign against ivory involving more than a million people.
China’s engagement with the issue has been “a great leap forward,” according to one British official.
A recent survey found that Chinese consumer awareness of the ivory and horn trade’s impact on African wildlife has grown rapidly over the past two years following major public awareness campaigns, featuring celebrities such as Prince William, David Beckham and actor Jackie Chan (成龍).
However Milliken, who is scheduled to attend the Kasane conference today struck a note of caution that will not be popular with everyone.
“We tend to think people will be moved by the same messages as us, but those messages could have the opposite effect,” he said. “People want to demonstrate their wealth and status. If we say rhinos have rarity value, they could say, ‘Look at me, I can get it.’”
“The whole environmental community has to step back and ask, what are we trying to achieve? We have to get smarter and play a different game — maybe take our logos off. I still think there is a place for celebrities to help, but we have to be mature and realize that it only gets you so far. We can’t just haul out Madonna and think that will solve everything,” Milliken said.
David Smith is the Guardian’s Africa correspondent.
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