By Sun Wei
Over 40 nations agreed to the "London Declaration" at the Illegal Wildlife Conference in London on February 14, which opened a new chapter in the battle to save iconic species from the brink of extinction.
Key states have signed up to actions that will help eradicate the demand for wildlife products, strengthen law enforcement, and support the development of sustainable livelihoods for communities affected by wildlife crimes.
Dr Richard Thomas, Global Communications Coordinator with international wildlife trade-monitoring network TRAFFIC, told the Global Times, "It was an important event that could mark the turning point in global efforts to address the current poaching crisis."
Heather Sohl, chief species advisor at WWF-UK, told the Global Times, "The conference generated a high level of attention globally to the problems, impacts and solutions for illegal wildlife trade and the unanimous call for action is unprecedented."
"The challenge now is to keep up the political momentum and help translate this attention into concerted action by governments to deliver the declaration's bold commitments," she added.
In Africa, brutality happens each and every day. Poachers track and attack baby elephants to lure in the adult elephants, their real targets. While the adult elephants desperately gather to protect their offspring, the poachers use AK-47s or arrows tipped with poison to kill their prey. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, they then "hack their tusks out with an axe" while the elephant is still alive.
Activity in the illegal ivory trade has more than doubled since 2007 and 2012 alone witnessed up to 35,000 elephants killed, which equates to 96 deaths a day. Rhino poaching increased 50 times between 2007 and 2012, with one killed by a poacher every 10 hours.
The lives of those working hard to protect endangered wildlife are also at risk, with at least 1,000 park rangers killed over the last decade alone.
The international sale of ivory has been banned since 1989 yet elephants are being slaughtered for their tusks as never before. When a business is worth between £4-6 billion ($6.7-10 billion) globally, people willingly take the risk. Wildlife trafficking now ranks among the top five most lucrative illicit trades in the world, alongside drug-smuggling, weapons proliferation, counterfeit goods and human trafficking.
The explosion in elephant and rhino poaching in recent years is driven by demand for illegal wildlife consumer goods.
Increased wealth in Asia is opening up new markets for illegal wildlife products and the largest markets for illicit ivory are China followed by Thailand, Sohl said. At the moment lax customs and law enforcement allow criminal syndicates to smuggle illegal wildlife across borders by land, sea and air, and to make profits to finance other illegal activities, such as corruption, money laundering and the trafficking of arms and drugs.
Instability and the presence of armed non-state actors in source countries provide the ideal context for large-scale poaching. More disturbingly, wildlife crime allows organized crime to flourish, fuelling regional conflicts and terrorism.
"More law enforcement needs to be put into place in order to crack down on criminals and take away the lucrativeness of the trade. There have been recent good examples of China working with African countries, from arrests to awareness drives through Chinese embassies, and we would encourage more collaboration such as this," Sohl added.
China can't succeed alone
China publicly destroyed more than six tons of confiscated ivory in January in Dongguan, Guangdong Province. This landmark move is considered as symbolic as the historic Opium combustion in Humen, Dongguan in 1839.
"The burning of confiscated ivory signified the Chinese government's effort and willingness towards preventing the trade of endangered species parts," Li Lin, conservation director at WWF-China, told the Global Times. "We encourage the Chinese government to continue supporting the effort to reduce demand for these products and therefore the threat to threatened species and continue the enforcement of wildlife protection law," Li added.
The Chinese have used ivory in traditional crafts and rhino horn in traditional medicine for thousands of years. As the spending power grows, the desire of expanding Chinese middle class for rare commodities rekindles the demand for ivory. Currently, the price is skyrocketing more than that of gold and platinum, which fuels the illegal poaching in source countries.
Richard Thomas of TRAFFIC said, China is a huge market and the country's actions can have the biggest single impact on the dynamics of both demand and supply for the illicit trade in a number of wildlife commodities.
In recent months, China made some very significant commitments. In addition to the public destruction of ivory, China played a key role in Operation Cobra II, an international enforcement crackdown on wildlife crime, collaborated with authorities in Kenya, where an alleged kingpin behind wildlife smuggling was arrested and rapidly extradited to face trial, and the Chinese Embassy in Kenya held an event to raise awareness about wildlife trade issues for the Chinese community in Africa.
"However, China cannot address wildlife crime alone. It needs concerted action by the international community in three key areas: stopping wildlife poaching, increasing law enforcement effectiveness to break trade chains and penalizing those involved, and reducing consumer demand in end-use markets. Given China's increasing global influence, its leadership in dealing with wildlife crime is both crucial and would, I am sure, be warmly welcomed," said Thomas.