By Michael McCarthy
As the British Prime Minister met the Chinese Premier in the Great Hall of the People on Monday, so many were the metaphorical elephants in the room that the tragic fate of the world’s largest land mammal scarcely crossed anyone’s mind.
As David Cameron tours China over the next two days, with a plane load of British businessmen, seeking to bolster trade between the two nations, those who seek to make things difficult for him will do so with questions over China’s embarrassing record over human rights. It is a country that goes to great lengths to do its dirty laundry in private, but the footprint left by its unprecedented economic rise is stamped all over the world’s poorest continent.
The epidemic of elephant slaughter now consuming Africa is resurgent, and more potent than it has ever been, but it would not be an overstatement to claim that the stretching row of Chinese politicians that faced up to their British counterparts along the famous desks of the Great Hall represents the front line in the war on ivory.
In Africa, where the world’s most majestic animals live alongside the poorest people, it is burgeoning Chinese demand that daily raises the price on the head of the African elephant.
Among Mr Cameron’s first engagements was to smile for the cameras as he opened Beijing’s new Land Rover academy. The luxury goods market in the country is growing just as fast as the bank accounts of China’s burgeoning middle classes. But for the Chinese tourists of the future, who will drive around the African savannah in the British made vehicles, one of the major draws is rapidly disappearing, and only the Chinese themselves are empowered to do anything about it.
But Britain too, has elephant blood on its hands. In 2008, in spite of dire warnings of the consequences, this country voted in favour of the decision to allow China to buy ivory legally.
Britain’s backing for the 2008 decision, which gave a whole new impetus to the Chinese demand for ivory now driving the uncontrolled elephant poaching across the African continent, was “outrageous”, says Allan Thornton of the Environmental Investigation Agency, writing in today’s Independent.
Mr Thornton, whose EIA provided much of the evidence for the original UN ivory trade ban in 1989, accuses the Government of Gordon Brown of making a “terrible blunder” in backing the vote in the standing committee of Cites, the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species, the UN body that regulates the wildlife trade.
He says that the latest estimate, from the University of Washington, shows that as many as 52,000 elephants may now be killed annually in Africa - far above the currently accepted estimate of about 36,000.
It is becoming clear that the unconstrained slaughter is the one of the greatest wildlife crises the world has ever seen and Mr Thornton says that because of its ill-advised action five years ago – which “people seem to have forgotten” – Britain now has a special responsibility to take action to combat it. More....