Civil war is devastating. Until the Taliban kicked me out of Afghanistan in 1998 – I was the last Western diplomat – I was at the forefront of the question of the impact of a long war on the people and the economy. I returned twice as much work in Afghanistan in the years following the expulsion, and by the time I left last year in Kabul after stretching as the British Ambassador to Afghanistan, I saw a change for the better.
Coming to the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), I have a front-row seat on a different kind of war: the war on wildlife. The illegal wildlife trade has catastrophic impacts on people and animals. The annihilation of wildlife by organised criminal gangs is violent, bloody, corrupt and insidious. It robs communities of their resources, their independence, their opportunities and their dignity. It strips their homes of beauty and diversity. It may even cost some people their lives. And we are all losers as the creatures with which we share this planet are pillaged to extinction.
While war and terrorist atrocities make daily headlines, the horrors being waged on wildlife slide under the radar: 100 million sharks killed every year, mostly for their fins; 20,000 African elephants slaughtered annually for their ivory; more than 1,000 rhinos poached every year from South Africa alone. And there has been a huge decline in the size of wildlife populations since 1970. In human terms, that’s like losing the entire population of Asia from the world. Wildlife crime is a key factor in those losses, sharing blame with overpopulation, deforestation and agriculture, to name but a few.
Perhaps the illegal wildlife trade lacks the visceral fear factor of novichok or terrorism to wake the world up to the harm being perpetrated. But while we dither, more species are being wiped out – an elephant is killed for its tusks every 25 minutes. The growth of the illegal wildlife trade is one of the biggest causes of extinction. It is driven by well-armed and resourced criminal gangs operating on an industrial scale.
Next week the government is convening an international conference on the illegal wildlife trade in London. It is a critical opportunity to shine another spotlight on the atrocity of wildlife crime and to ensure the international community works together on collective solutions.
What we don’t need is to negotiate more treaties or agreements. We have already got the mechanisms we need to halt the trade. We need political will and action to implement the laws that are already in place and to address demand. China’s closure of its domestic ivory market is welcome, but only a first step. We also need to support the people on the frontline – the rangers who risk their lives to protect wildlife, and the communities reliant on wildlife to survive. This is a war that, together, we can win.