Leading nations gathered in London this week for the highest-level meeting ever to tackle the illegal trade in wildlife products. Illegal wildlife trafficking—the unlawful slaughter of endangered animals to trade their valuable parts—has risen alarmingly in recent years. Campaigners estimate that more than 30,000 elephants were killed in Africa last year for their ivory and 1,000 rhinos killed in South Africa alone, an increase of some 5,000%. But the problems the trade poses are not just to elephants, tigers and rhinos—there’s increasing evidence linking illegal wildlife trading with corruption, terrorist groups and organized criminal networks.
The London meeting is evidence of a growing political will among countries to finally take concerted action on the issue. British royals Prince Charles and Prince William attended the conference, urging the 46 partaking countries to commit to ending wildlife trafficking. The conference ended with a strongly worded declaration in which the countries agreed for the first time to renounce the use of products from species threatened with extinction. Other key action points include an agreement to eradicate the market for illegal wildlife products, ensure effective legal frameworks and strengthen law enforcement. The declaration also pledged to put the trafficking in illegal wildlife products in the same category as trafficking in drugs, arms and people.
The declaration comes on the heels of a pledge from the leaders of Botswana, Gabon, Chad and Tanzania during the conference to honor a 10-year moratorium on sales of ivory. And it adds to strong statements from the U.S., which on Wednesday announced that it would ban the commercial trade in ivory. It’s also worth noting that several countries have taken steps to destroying stockpiles of ivory in the past year—from the Philippines to the U.S. to France—to send a message to poachers that there is no future in the ivory market. Most promisingly, Hong Kong, which holds one of the world’s largest stockpiles of ivory, announced in January that it would destroy 28 tons of confiscated ivory.
While on the surface many of the moves taken by governments have been positive, some conservationists argue that much more needs to be done. “Wildlife crime is a massive and complex problem,” says Ginette Hemley of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). “It’s global in scale but has local roots. So winning this fight will require efforts and cooperation at every level, from the field level to the halls of global policy institutions.”
One of the focal points of the conference was the need to address the demand for illegal wildlife products—a tough ask, given that some of these products are more valuable by weight than gold or platinum. Rhino horn can sell for as much as $66,139 per kg ($30,000 per lb) on the Chinese black market, reported Chatham House, a U.K.-based think tank, in a recent report. Its authors also note that China, the largest consumer of ivory, has seen rising demand for in recent years because of its popularity of wildlife products among its burgeoning middle classes.
While the Chinese government has taken concrete steps to restrict the sale of ivory to only licensed shops that must label ivory items with ID cards, enforcement has been lacking. A 2013 study found that 43% of urban Chinese were not aware of the license system at all, and among previous buyers, nearly 20% did not receive an ID card for their ivory. William Hague, the British foreign secretary who helped to host the conference, told the media on Feb. 13 that raising awareness and changing this behavior was one of the most pressing areas for the summit.
But while the London declaration appears to have hit the right notes, with many conservation groups welcoming the proposals, challenges remain. The most obvious is the schizophrenic approaches within and between countries, with many operating legal systems for trading products from endangered animal species even as they have regulation clamping down on illegal trading. That legal trade is estimated to be $300 billion a year, eclipsing the $10 billion that the illegal trade is valued at. “There is more progress to be made,” acknowledged Hague. But, he said, politicians alone could not accomplish this work. “This is not just about governments, this is about the public understanding that the ivory trade involves the death of elephants on a great scale, and can’t be anything else.”