Elephants are currently being poached at a rate of one every 15 minutes. In 1979 there were approximately 1.3 million elephants in the wild; today there are around 400,000. We are facing the possibility of the virtual extinction of elephants in our lifetimes, along with the extinction of a number of other iconic species, including the rhino, tiger and orangutan. The illegal wildlife trade which is driving unprecedented poaching levels is increasingly high on the international political agenda, and as the Defra Minister with lead responsibility for international biodiversity I have been seeking to play my part in working out an international consensus on what to do to conserve these invaluable creatures.
In December last year the Botswanan Government hosted a summit in Gabarone focussed specifically on the plight of the African Elephant. I represented the UK, and joined delegates from 29 other countries in endorsing a list of 14 Urgent Measures which are aimed at reversing the dramatic upward trend in poaching levels during recent years. These measures cover areas including enforcement, intelligence gathering and sharing and increasing public awareness, and I am hopeful that they will prove to be a valuable stepping stone towards significant and united international action in the face of this terrible threat.
At the same time, the summit highlighted the complexity of the challenge facing us. While Botswana has the world’s largest elephant population (approximately 200,000), and is pursuing the most uncompromising anti-poaching policies possible (even having banned all hunting from January of this year), they and their African neighbours are up against a formidable network of international criminal syndicates who are attracted to wildlife poaching and trafficking by the extraordinary prices these products are selling for - ivory currently fetches around $2,000 per kilo, and each elephant carries an average of 6.5 kilos.
Eliminating poaching will require co-operation across a wide range of agencies and activities by the source, transit and destination countries, and this will not be easy to achieve. We are not there yet, but with meetings such as the African Elephant Summit in Gabarone achieving significant steps forward, and with our own international conference in London coming up on 13th February, there are reasons to hope we can do enough to ensure that our grandchildren will still be able to see elephants in the wild.
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