National Geographic News
Photo of a row of shelved tiger heads at the National Wildlife Property Repository.

Illegal wildlife items like these tiger heads are stored at the U.S. National Wildlife Property Repository in Colorado before being destroyed or used in research.

Photograph by Kate Brooks/Redux

Laurel Neme

for National Geographic

Published February 12, 2014

Bringing together heads of state and government ministers from 50 countries, Thursday's high-level summit on illegal wildlife trade may represent a turning point in the fight against wildlife crime.

The London summit—hosted by the British government and led by Prime Minister David Cameron, Foreign Secretary William Hague, and Environment Secretary Owen Paterson—focuses on securing specific actions around elephants, rhinos, and tigers.

Topics being discussed include improving law enforcement and the role of the criminal justice system, reducing demand for illegal wildlife products, and supporting the development of sustainable alternative livelihoods.

Prince Charles and his son, William, the Duke of Cambridge, are attending, as are the presidents of Botswana, Chad, Gabon, and Tanzania. There is also a delegation from China.

A two-day International Wildlife Trafficking Symposium at the Zoological Society of London wraps up today. Organized by United for Wildlife (a partnership among Conservation International, Fauna & Flora International, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, The Nature Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Society, WWF-UK, the Zoological Society of London, and the Royal Foundation), the attendees are identifying solutions to feed into the summit.

Participants expect the summit will yield a declaration that contains political commitments and high-level endorsement of actions to be taken, as well as resource commitments to deliver them.

Wish List

Conservation organizations would like to see heads of state and government ministers publicly support and endorse commitments for stemming wildlife trafficking made in previous months. These include the Marrakech Declaration, the Paris Declaration on illegal wildlife trade from the Africa-France Summit on Peace and Security, and the African Elephant Summit Urgent Measures.

They also want to see announcements of national-level commitments for addressing poaching, trafficking, and demand reduction—and clear mechanisms for follow-up.

"This conference is a timely opportunity to consolidate the progress made this year and ensure the high-level political support for the implementation of the commitments made so far," says TRAFFIC's director of policy, Sabri Zain.

Summit of All Summits?

It could be the summit of all summits, says Bas Huijbregts, head of WWF's campaign against illegal wildlife trade in central Africa. He hopes governments "from key source, transit, and demand countries will commit to measurable action on national levels, and that they agree to being held accountable on an annual basis by reporting back to the Secretary-General and the General Assembly of the United Nations on the status of national efforts to implement international commitments."

Already, a number of countries have announced new initiatives or taken action. On Tuesday, the United States announced a domestic commercial ivory ban.

Photo of the carcass of one of the two rhinos found near Letaba camp after it was shot on November 27, 2013 in The Kruger National Park, South Africa. ” width=
Photograph by Gallo Images/Foto24/Alet Pretorius/Redux
Rhinos, like this one in Kruger National Park in South Africa, are killed by poachers for their horns.

"We recognize, as do the British government and other participants, the fleeting window of opportunity available now to protect and sustain wild populations of elephants, rhinos, and other imperiled species," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.

"We're acting now to identify and close loopholes in our current laws and regulations exploited by poachers and traffickers, and look forward at the summit to discussing avenues for closer international collaboration with participating nations."

Chad Taking Action

At a side event Tuesday evening at the House of Lords hosted by Space for Giants with the Tusk Trust and Gabon National Parks Agency, Chad's Environment Minister Mahamat Issa Halikimi announced that Chad will destroy its entire stockpile of ivory on February 20.

Tanzania's Minister for Natural Resources and Wildlife, Lazaro Nyalandu, said, "We are saying no to poaching; we are saying no to this trade."

Nyalandu tweeted that Tanzania supports banning the ivory trade to help international efforts against poaching. (Tanzania is a hot spot for ivory smuggling, with a significant portion of the illegal ivory seized in Asia coming from or through the country.)

Toward a Total Ivory Ban

"We may be at a turning point," says Mary Rice, executive director of the U.K.'s Environmental Investigation Agency. "The mood in the room today [at the ZSL Symposium and the Space for Giants event] is that everyone is now finally—and really—acknowledging the problem, and that we're moving closer to support of a ban on all ivory from all sources."

That optimism is echoed by many.

"This meeting offers a unique opportunity to draw a line in the sand and say 'so far and no further,'" said Will Travers, president of the Born Free Foundation.

Richard Ruggiero, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Asia and Africa branch chief, agreed, saying, "I usually am skeptical about meetings and talk shops, but the feeling here is that there is earnest momentum to address the ivory crisis."

High-level political commitment may be what's required to halt the emergency.

This gathering of world leaders "will provide a great impetus towards an enhanced professional law enforcement response against this criminal threat," said David Higgins, INTERPOL's assistant director for the environmental security subdirectorate.

Focus on Kingpins

Many countries are not effectively investigating wildlife crimes, noted John Sellar, an anti-smuggling, fraud, and organized crime consultant, at the symposium. But with directives from the top, governments could expand the mandate of those fighting drug and human trafficking, so that their potent techniques could also be brought to bear against wildlife crime.

Because poachers are easily replaced, the heads of organized wildlife crime networks must be targeted. For that, law enforcement should follow the financial trail, said Davyth Stewart, coordinator for the natural resources branch of INTERPOL's environmental security subdirectorate.

But the skills needed to follow the money are often not found in wildlife agencies. To address that deficiency, Stewart noted the need to establish National Environmental Security Task Forces (NESTs), or multiagency task forces, to coordinate investigations and draw on already available skills. Creating NESTs requires high-level directives.

Judicial action too is vital. "Nations have to commit to putting one major wildlife trafficker behind bars each week," urged Ofir Drori, coordinator of LAGA, a wildlife law enforcement network in Africa. "We need to move forward from counting dead elephants to counting criminals prosecuted and jailed."

Changing Consumer Habits

The summit has the potential to break bottlenecks in the fight against wildlife crime. Its results must also translate into shifts in consumer demand, a change that's crucial but difficult.

"Without a complementary effort to effectively address the persistent market demand that drives this trade, enforcement action alone may sometimes be futile," TRAFFIC's Zain said.

Illustrating the depth of the challenge was video footage released Wednesday by Hong Kong elephant conservation groups (Hong Kong for Elephants, ACE Foundation, and WildLifeRisk).

The video shows sales staff at Hong Kong's two largest ivory retailers advocating a variety of concealment techniques to potential consumers to help them evade detection by Hong Kong and mainland Chinese customs. It also revealed that staff heavily promote ivory products from freshly killed elephants that command a premium price.

"We'll never succeed in putting in jail all the wildlife traffickers or stop all the syndicates behind such a dirty business due to worldwide poverty and corruption," said Stéphanie Vergniault, founder and executive director of SOS Elephants of Chad and SOS Elephants of Congo.

"But we can stop the demand of these products and save endangered wildlife by creating awareness among the thousands of consumers who can realize that many species are under threat of extinction due to their greediness."

She hopes that once back home delegates at the summit "give very strong instructions to their own respective departments ... and [promote] zero tolerance for killing an endangered species like an elephant."

As EIA's Rice notes, "The proof is in the pudding. But my sense is that statements and commitments made on such a platform will be difficult to renege on."

Only time will tell.

6 comments
Richard Lee
Richard Lee

The tiger heads have got such demented expressions. Completely pointless even without the waste of life

Viet Phan
Viet Phan

The silly thing is the same poachers will be upset when aliens start skinning humans.

Alanna Parker
Alanna Parker

I don't know how any human being is capable of such soulless behaviour! To see these dead animals butchered for such a sick reason is beyond comprehension. Every time I see the pictures I want to grab a gun and start shooting. I pray that finally working together with governments and all the great people behind the scenes can finally have there cries for help with this issue be here'd loud and clear!

Jan Wiechowski
Jan Wiechowski

It seems to me that the protection of wildlife coming back again. I look forward to the effective protection of animals.

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