Wed, Mar 25, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Despite conservationists’ best efforts, the world is losing the wildlife war

It has been a year since 46 countries signed the ‘London declaration,’ a pledge to eradicate the trade in horn and ivory, but elephants and rhinos are still being pushed ever closer to extinction

By David Smith  /  The Observer

Illustration: Mountain people

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.

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.

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