Global nature is in crisis. We are currently witnessing species extinctions at a thousand times the natural rate, with the wildlife population declining by half since the 1970s. Water sources are drying up, forest cover is shrinking, and vital habitats like mangroves and coral reefs are being decimated.
As an environmentalist, I care deeply about this devastation of beautiful creatures and pristine habitats, but the extra tragedy of what is happening to our planet is in how it ruins human lives too. When the natural world is harmed by depleting fish stocks or destroying forests, people – especially the very poorest – bear the brunt.
For as long as the market is blind to the value of nature, and to the cost of waste, pollution and environmental destruction, then these depressing trends will accelerate. The solutions to this crisis are therefore many and complex, and lasting progress will not be made without monumental efforts at every level of government, here and abroad, and without a fundamental shift in the way we do business.
But in a couple of weeks’ time, the UK will take a lead in combating one of the key causes of the global nature crisis when it hosts the fourth conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT).
IWT is worth around £17bn annually and ranks as the fourth largest illegal trade globally after drugs, people and weapons. It is serious, organised crime that funds some of the worst organisations and terrorist groups in the world. It is responsible for the poaching of iconic species like elephants, rhinos and tigers, as well as less well-known creatures like pangolins, and the destruction of pristine forests and fisheries.
Elephants are being slaughtered at a rate of some 20,000 a year – that’s one every 25 minutes – to fuel the trade in ivory. Four rhinos are killed every day for their horns. Pangolins – the most trafficked animal on the planet – are used for their blood, scales and meat. And the most illegally traded species of all is rosewood, with illegal logging decimating the forests of countries like Madagascar.
But it’s not all bad news, and the UK in particular has a positive story to tell in tackling this heinous trade. Four years ago, our government showed global leadership in bringing together world leaders to discuss this issue and take action, culminating in a ground-breaking declaration that still sets the global standard on steps we can take to stamp out IWT.
Domestically, the government can trumpet a world-leading ban – soon to be passed into law – which is vital in halting the legal and illegal trade in ivory. The British army is in Malawi, helping to train rangers who are the first line of defence against poaching, and the IWT Challenge Fund sees government money going to small projects across the world that are, for example, seeking to disrupt trafficking of wildlife products in Cambodia, and strengthening law enforcement in Mongolia where snow leopards are targeted.
And recently, International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt has announced UK support for vital habitats in Indonesia, protecting species like the Sumatran tiger by creating jobs and alternative livelihoods for local communities. This is a model I hope we can expand across our overseas aid spending.
But we can and should do more, and this year’s IWT conference – for which I have been asked to be the government’s ‘champion’ – must be a watershed moment in tackling both this evil trade and the wider crisis in global nature in the lead up to biodiversity conferences in 2019 and 2020.
I am excited to report that this IWT conference will be the biggest one yet, with more people from more countries coming together to pledge more action. The UK will up its game by doing more to support countries in Africa which see first-hand the devasting impacts of the illegal trade, and we will lead from the front with the Ivory Alliance 2024, which will urge as many nations as possible to match our ivory ban.
This is not just about what governments can do. The private sector has a vital role to play, and I am delighted that the conference will mobilise leaders in the tourism, tech, e-commerce and travel sectors, each of which has a major contribution to make.
With the right commitment and momentum, we can begin to turn back the tide on IWT and the global emergency faced by the natural world. The prize for doing this is a safer, more prosperous planet for people and animals alike; the cost of failure would be unimaginable.