Recently, on a rainy April evening in London, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge made their first public appearance since the Duke’s return from the Falklands, attending a charity screening for Tusk Trust of the Disney Nature film, African Cats. The evening was light, jolly. The Duke’s message was anything but.

Speaking to a packed theatre, which included many of the world’s leading press organisations, England’s future monarch was direct and emphatic. “Tusk and other conservation groups are now confronting the truly horrific situation affecting Africa’s elephant and rhinoceros. Both are being mercilessly and illegally poached at a rate not seen for decades. Unless this stops, these two majestic animals will be, in a few short years, but a memory in the wilds of Africa.”

A dramatic though accurate statement. With rhino in South Africa alone being poached at a rate of one every 18 hours, and elephants at some 35,000 per year from an overall population estimated around 350,000, the killing has reached a crisis point.

According to Ian Craig, Director of Special Projects at Kenya’s Northern Rangelands Trust, the current level of poaching is but the start of a massive tsunami sweeping the continent, decimating wildlife and destroying national and local economies, including the tourism industry, which in countries like Kenya accounts for at least 10% of GDP.

“If our grandchildren are to experience the wild Africa and free-roaming animals of today, we have to kill the demand for ivory and rhino horn. The time is now. Right now. Not tomorrow.”

The demand Craig refers to is almost wholly attributed to an insatiable appetite in the East. For rhino horn, it is Vietnam. While in the case of ivory, it is an emerging middle class in China. With fast-tracked industrialization and economic growth, this consumer group is likely to be 250 million stronger within the next 15 years, bringing with it ever-increased buying power for aspirational goods.

Case in point. As recently as mid-May, Dukes auctioneers in the UK were set to sell a pair of antique carved ivory tusks, purported to be the largest ever brought to auction. Previews of the item made headlines, but perhaps more tellingly, sparked a veritable feeding frenzy in China, where the Internet was flooded with images.

With less than forty-eight hours to go before the sale, Tusk Trust placed a call to Guy Schwinge, co-owner of Dukes, to ask if he were aware how the sale of “legal” ivory drives overall demand and illegal trade. The answer was no, despite the fact Schwinge was very aware of the poaching crisis in Africa. In the end, Dukes bought in the lot, as well as a second pair scheduled for sale, taking them off the market.

“I’d like to think we made an enlightened decision,” Schwinge said. “But the question is, how could I not have known? Why doesn’t everyone know?”
Tragically, there is a human cost to all of this as well. Perhaps more frightening than the demand it fuels, trade in ivory has given rise to unprecedented levels of poaching, underpinning corruption and violence, organised crime syndicates and even the funding of wars.

“Not so long ago in Kenya I saw a bulletriddled elephant carcass,” said Aidan Hartley, veteran war reporter and correspondent for Britain’s Unreported World.

“Nearby was a mass grave in which the bodies of dozens of people killed in ethnic fighting were buried. It underlines how there’s a very real link between ivory poaching and human bloodletting and war. Guns are being handed out by organised crime networks, which are used to kill elephants.”

It is not without irony that proponents of a return to a fully legalised trade in ivory, as evidenced in a recent report commissioned by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), have suggested a mechanism modeled along the lines of the Kimberley Process, the self-regulatory certification scheme intended to stem the flow of conflict diamonds.

By many accounts, the Kimberley Process failed. As is the case with pretty much all initiatives that allow an industry the benefit of policing itself, with little to no oversight. Add to that a continent littered with weapons left over from decades of civil wars, and the presence of China, one of Africa’s biggest trading partners and the country most aligned with the surge in demand for ivory, and you have nothing short of a perfect storm.

Put another way, can the model for gemstones be a model for a commodity that is attached to the front end of a living animal that has to die for that commodity to be realised? And should CITES, a body created by the UN, really be running this debate?

“Everyone I have come across agrees, regardless of whether or not there is a legal supply, the demand for ivory is simply too huge and threatens the survival of the species,” said Diane Skinner of the African Elephant Specialist Group. “It is a major, major issue.”

For Tusk in particular. Established in 1990, when the last crisis was stopped dead by the implementation of an international ban on all trade in ivory, the resurgence of poaching is nothing short of heartbreaking.

“What is so worrying about the re-emergence of the trade today is that we no longer have the weapon of introducing a new ban within our armory – the international ban is technically still in place, “ said Tusk founder and CEO Charlie Mayhew.

“It was a catastrophic mistake for CITES to allow the two ‘one-off’ sales of ivory stockpiles. It confused the message about the legality of ivory and stimulated demand. We urgently need a bold new initiative, supported by the whole of Africa, which successfully engages and educates consumer markets to stop buying ivory and allow these majestic animals to simply exist.”

As Patron of Tusk, the Duke of Cambridge has watched, more closely than most, this tragedy unfold.

The issues are indeed grave, but also clear and able to be addressed if enough people are willing to get involved, help, and work collaboratively. First and foremost, all trade in ivory needs to be illegal. Full stop. While law enforcement in Africa, as well as in destination countries like China and Thailand, needs to be massively shored up. But, perhaps most importantly, it is time to insist China address demand, which needs to stop for the killing to stop.

En route to South Sudan, where ivory is traded unabashedly in the markets of the capital city of Juba, Aidan Hartley writes, “This must be cracked down on hard. China needs to listen. Chinese people might be shocked to learn that the Africa they imagine they’re helping to build economically is also being caused great suffering by their hunger for ivory.”

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