This month I was fortunate enough to attend one of the biggest and most important wildlife events of the year; the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference 2018.
This was the fourth IWT conference to be held in London and proved an insightful, inspiring and pretty intense event. I attended on behalf of National Geographic Kids magazine, and was delighted to fly the flag for Born Free Foundation — of whom I’m a trustee — alongside a small team of representatives from the charity.
Let me just say now, I am so lucky to have a job that allows me the opportunity to immerse myself in this world, and further understand the highs and lows of wildlife conservation.
What is the Illegal Wildlife Trade?
The illegal wildlife trade refers to the illegal sale and purchase of endangered live animals, the body parts or full carcasses of deceased endangered animals, and endangered plant species.
The illegal wildlife trade (IWT) is the fourth largest profitable international crime in the world — after drugs, firearms and human trafficking — and often ties in closely with these other illegal industries (for example, drugs smuggled across borders inside rhino horns).
Government officials from 183 parties worldwide set the precedent for which species are illegal to trade during ‘CITES‘ meetings — launched in 1975 to protect wild animals. CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna refers to the agreement between those 183 Member Countries determining which animals and plants are considered to be endangered (making any trade in them illegal). It takes place every three years with representatives discussing whether to tighten or loosen trade restrictions on specific species.
What is the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference?
The high-profile conference was created to bring global leaders together, as well as other stakeholders and delegates from many different fields, businesses and NGOs (non-governmental organisations).
The aim is to better protect the world’s most iconic species from the threat of extinction by helping to eradicate illegal wildlife trade.
Chief Inspector Louise Hubble, Head of the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit explained: “Everybody across the world is trying to tackle the fight against wildlife crime and without meetings like this, we wouldn’t have that opportunity to network, to engage, to share best practice, to learn from each other and to develop those contacts in other countries that we need to work with to tackle wildlife crime globally.”
Why is it important?
For our planet’s wildlife, the illegal wildlife trade is the key component in a bleak and disturbing story. The IWT conference is a chance for global leaders to work together to try and improve the future of those species most affected.
Every day, three rhinos are brutally killed; their horns hacked off to fetch a high price (a similar street value to heroine), under the unfounded belief that they will provide relief for headaches.
Every two hours, an elephant is mutilated so that its tusks can be shipped along smuggling routes to Asia, where they will be sold as phoney medicinal products and status symbols.
Every five minutes a pangolin is being snatched from the wild for its scales to be boiled off and roasted to feed that same traditional medicine market‘s insatiable hunger for animal-based solutions for everything from the common cold, to skin diseases, hair loss to pus drainage, and even as a cure for cancer.
Pangolin meat is also seen as a delicacy — another reason why pangolins are the world’s most trafficked animal.
The illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be worth as much as £15.5 billion a year (more than 20 billion US dollars).
Organised crime groups see wildlife as a low risk, high-value commodity, and often the illegal wildlife trade has connections with other serious crime networks; such as the illegal trade of drugs and arms.
Perhaps surprisingly, the most globally trafficked species are plants (also legislated at CITES; the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).
Illegal rosewood trafficking accounts for the largest portion of total wildlife seizure (ranked by type) between 2005 and 2014.
Rosewood is illegally trafficked from Madagascar, Southeast Asia, Nigeria, and Ghana. The high international demand for expensive timber has seen the illegal rosewood industry reach a value of billions of US dollars every year. The trade is fuelled by countries such as China, which has a high demand for hongmu furniture and wood carvings among its middle class citizens.
A view inside the conference…
As this is my first time attending the conference, I had no idea of what would greet me inside. For those of my readers who are curious about what the conference actually looks like, outside the front of building stood three of the 21 hand-decorated rhino sculptures from the recent Tusk Trust rhino trail (awaiting auction at the end of the conference). A poignant reminder about the future of rhinos.
Inside the entrance, stood two wonderful sculptures by artist Camilla Le May One depicting Sudan, the last male Northern White Rhino, who sadly passed away earlier this year; and another of a matriarch elephant with two calves. Both served a poignant reminder of the species we have lost and those which we stand to lose if we do not increase the fight against the illegal trade of wildlife.
[Some of my images from the conference can be view below. Click to enlarge:]
Once inside the main conference hall, a mix of trade stalls sort to tell the story of the charities, organisations and institutions they represented. Among those present were The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Zoological Society of London (ZSL), International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), IUCN Species Survival Commission, Defra Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund and UK Counter-Poaching Assistance.
National Geographic provided the main screen at the event, showing — in-between a tweet stream and live pictures from inside the auditorium — beautiful Photo Ark images by Joel Sartore (the kind seen in the film Racing Extinction). An important message at the conference.
Leading off of the main room were two theatre rooms; one with a main stage, a media section filled with broadcasting equipment and hundreds of seats; while another provided a venue for the less ‘high profile’ talks of the day.
Who was in attendance?
This year, around 1,500 people attended, including delegates from 85 countries, heads of state, ministers and HRH Prince William — who addressed the crowd with a moving keynote speech in the Opening Session (see video below).
The Duke of Cambridge spoke of his desire to protect the natural world for those who come after us; highlighting the importance of inspiring the next generation of future leaders. Naturally, he named Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis as his inspirations.
He used his speech as an opportunity to thank rangers for their incredible work – including the 100 ranger killed in the line of duty last year – adding; “whether you are a ranger risking your life, or an activist trying to educate against the medicinal use of wildlife products, you are making a difference.”
This was London’s second time hosting the event, the first being four years ago in 2014. The Prince acknowledged some of the changes and statistical ‘wins’ since the last London conference — a marked difference from the tone of Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt‘s speech, which highlighted the pressures that a rising population has put wildlife under.
“The world population is at 7.5 billion. The global infant mortality rate has fallen by 50%, yet as we [as a species] have succeeded, other species have fallen drastically into decline,” he explained.
“That is a decline of 60% [of our planet’s wildlife] since 1970. 40 years ago, Africa had 1.3 million elephants, now there are just 400,000.”
Citing the IWT as having a value of 23 billion dollars annually, Jeremy Hunt added that the trade threatens some of the poorest people in the world. “The interests of humanity cannot be separated from the interests of the natural world,” he concluded.
The Prime Minister Theresa May was not present in person, but addressed the Opening Session via video link, re-affirming that the UK government is committed to shutting the trade down “from every possible angle”.
What pledges were made?
This year, the conference coincided with an announcement from the Duke of Cambridge that, along with the private sector, and led by United for Wildlife (a charity run by the Royal Foundation) he has launched a new financial task force to help the fight.
The task force, which is supported by the government, is made up of representatives from financial institutions around the world, along with agencies and regulatory bodies including TRAFFIC.
Representatives from 30 global banks and financial organisations including Standard Chartered, JP Morgan, HSBC, Western Union, CitiGroup and Bank of America, signed the Mansion House Declaration at the launch, pledging that they “will not knowingly facilitate or tolerate financial flows that are derived from IWT and associated corruption.”
According to a statement from the government, the task force is the ‘largest known project of its kind in the world’ to crack down on financial crimes associated with the illegal wildlife trade.
“UK aid is directly supporting efforts to recover illegal assets, disrupt organised crime networks and stop the flow of dirty money so that we can protect endangered and trafficked species and bring those responsible to justice,” said International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt.
The UK government also announced the following new commitments from the conference:
- £50,000 of funding to support in-country projects which complement the work of the new British military counter-poaching taskforce.
- £50,000 for new WILDLABS Tech Hub which will bring together technology companies and conservation organisations to provide innovative solutions to fight the illegal wildlife trade in ODA-eligible countries.
- Up to £40,000 as part of a partnership with Tale2Tail and WWF to fund education packs in multiple languages to help children understand the key issues in the illegal wildlife trade.
- Plans to establish a new global consortium of demand reduction and behaviour change specialists with local area insight to inform future working.
Key messages from Africa’s leaders
As well as the announcement of the new IWT task force, the UK government also to used the conference to promote its domestic ivory trade ban, which is currently working its way through Parliament.
Some of the other notable messages, comments and pledges I witnessed from the leaders present were:
- President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni: “What is the motivation behind the Illegal Wildlife Trade? In Uganda ivory is used for bangles – not overseas for medicine… When I come to these meetings, there’s one word I don’t hear: ‘Social Metamorphosis’.”
- President of Gabon, Ali Bongo Ondimba: “The criminals who slaughter our magnificent animals — elephants, tigers, lions; are the same ones who poison our people, fish and rivers with mercury; empty our oceans and steal our timber and also fund terrorism organisations. This is an international crime and if we are going to deal with it, we must do so together. We can’t do it alone, so please stand with us”.
- President of Botswana, Mokgweetsi Masisi: “In Botswana there have been efforts to increase penalties for these crimes.”
- The First Lady of Kenya, Margaret Kenyatta: “Kenya is endowed with some of the most iconic species of wildlife. This year’s [IWT conference] theme calls on us to step up in solutions for change. Kenya has been able to reduce poaching of iconic species significantly. We have over 34,000 elephants, over 1000 rhinos. The fourth and third largest consecutive populations in the world. Kenya is committed to eliminate crime and lower demand through ivory and rhino horn burns… The application of longer prison sentences has helped to deter criminals… Kenya plans to future advance conservation education. I look forward to adding Kenya’s voice to the coalition task force”.
- Attourney General of USA, Jeff Sessions (on behalf of President Trump): “These criminals must be and they can be stopped. President Trump supports the prosecution of those endangered in the Illegal Wildlife Trade, and so do I. The only time criminals care about borders is when they hide behind them. We are working hard to illicit that illegal wildlife products are not sold in America. Recently, a Californian resident was sent to prison for selling black rhino horn to an under cover agent.”
What I learnt…
One of the most unexpected things I learnt at the event was that surprisingly simple solutions can make a huge change. I was given a demonstration at the IFAW stand of the new Ivory Fingerprinting Kit developed by the Metropolitan Police and King’s College London.
This new kit can reveal fingerprints on ivory up to 28 days after a person touches it, as opposed to the 3 days previously possible.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has previously supplied the kit to law enforcement agencies in 23 countries to tackle the illegal wildlife trade — and the charity used the IWT conference to distribute a further 100 kits to the delegates in attendance to take back to their respective countries.
The fingerprinting powder within the kit is much smaller in size than previously, and has an iron core. It is applied on the ivory with a forensic magnetic wand and sticks to fingerprints, which can then be used as evidence to help catch the poachers.
Often poachers have been suspected of their crimes for an extended period of time, and many have previous convictions. Law enforcement agencies can use the fingerprints lifted from the ivory to match criminals who are already listed on databases and record those who aren’t, in the hope that they will be able to track their trails ahead of future arrest.
My highlight of the day
One of my main incentives for attending the conference was to interview Aidan Gallagher — the youngest ever UN Ambassador and one of the hosts of the two-day event — for a feature in National Geographic Kids magazine.
15-year-old Aidan (pictured above) chatted with me backstage about his role as a UN Ambassador and his extensive work campaigning for wildlife and to raise awareness of the effects of climate change.
It’s unusual to talk to a young person of his age who has such a deep understanding of the many complicated environmental issues our planet is facing, and who is doing so much hard work to try and tell others of his generation about it.
It was exciting to hear that one of his motivations for becoming a wildlife advocate was watching the documentary Racing Extinction — which of course is a film very close to my heart, having worked on the school resources for the documentary when I was employed Discovery Education. Definitely check out the full interview with Aidan in the December issue of Nat Geo Kids (more on that to come on a later blog post!).
My take home message
Throughout the day there was talk of a stronger coalition and better data share between countries. The message I heard echoed around the conference hall was; “A global coalition is important”.
The countries that have had proven reductions in their number of cases of wildlife crime spoke of harsher penalties and improved technology, such as using drones for surveillance.
From a personal perspective, I think it’s important to recognise the strong links between the illegal wildlife trade and the sale and movement of drugs — and the connection to arms and funding terrorist groups. It’s intrinsically linked, and as such deserves to treated with the same zero tolerance.
A big step would be to increase the level of public education and media coverage to match that seen with the sale of illegal drugs and weapons. For citizens to lobby government ministers to debate the trade as often and as publicly as they do these other criminal industries.
Also to teach children in schools, particularly in Asia, that ivory is worthless as an ornament and to educate global communities about how animal products have no medicinal value — in the same way we warn people in schools, colleges, doctors surgeries, through pamphlets, on television, about the dangers of taking drugs. This is also health education we’re dealing with, after all.
Born Free is now calling on the public to help them provide rangers with the ultimate tool to fight back against wildlife crime — a Dragon!
A Dragon GBT 1170 is an autogyro light-aircraft that will allow rangers to patrol vast areas of land in minutes rather than weeks, and to scope out seemingly inaccessible land to protect wildlife through using live-tracking technology, secure data/video/voice communications with rangers and control points on the ground and with high-performance, conventional and infra-red optics.
Born Free is teaming up with Chimera Aviation to launch these ‘dragons of the sky’ for ranger patrols. The aircraft, used by special military units, can take off in areas the size of a small garden, are quiet, can fly safely at low speeds — and can carry a pilot, a passenger/observer and technical equipment.
Howard Jones, CEO of Born Free, said: “We are launching the Dragons at Shamwari Private Game Reserve in South Africa — the home of our two big cat sanctuaries, and a 250km2 haven for wild animals which has some of the most advanced anti-poaching units in South Africa — and on the front-line at Garamba in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”
“Despite the fact that men and women around the world are putting their lives on the line to tackle the dreadful crimes of illegal wildlife trade and poaching, it just isn’t possible to deter and protect, all day, all night and every day. Deploying the Dragon will transform our capability and help turn the current balance on its head. This will allow our rangers to protect extensive areas safely, economically and efficiently, with much-enhanced surveillance capacity and flexibility, when compared to other aircraft.
What you can do?
Born Free are hoping to prove this method of poaching reduction is effective by rolling out the Dragon initiative over the next 12 months in 10 other key areas of Africa — including Kenya, Ethiopia and Zambia — and provide training for all local pilots and rangers.
But they need public backing with achieving this. To find out more and to help Born Free and partners have a major impact on poaching by supporting their Dragon initiative, visit www.bornfree.org.ukhttp://www.bornfree.org.uk.
Learn more about the illegal wildlife trade
Learn more about the trade in rhino horn
- Read about the rhino horn trade pre-CITES debate
- Discover one six-year old’s efforts raise awareness of the rhino horn trade
- Learn how the all-female anti-poaching unit; the Black Mambas, are fighting poachers
- Discover Remembering Rhinos…
- Hear my thoughts on the controversial new film ‘Trophy’, about legalising the trade in rhino horn
Want to know more about CITES 2016?
Want to know more about the trophy/canned hunting industry?