It has been thirty years since the last elephant died in Mauritania, the country of my birth, after a concerted period of poaching that affected the whole of Africa. While this was undoubtedly a tragedy, for a while it seemed as though the lesson had been learned. In 1989, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the international trade in ivory. Hope rose that the wholesale slaughter of the African elephant could be halted, and indeed the 1990s saw a significant drop in killings.However, in recent years a surge in poaching has led to thousands of elephants being butchered for their ivory, bringing back memories of the bad old days of the late seventies and eighties, when the African elephant population dropped from 1.3 million to 600,000. In 2011 alone, poachers claimed the lives of at least 17,000 of these intelligent and compassionate creatures. Latest estimates say there may be as few as 420,000 elephants left in Africa.
The organized criminal networks responsible for this poaching are not only destroying species, they are damaging the livelihoods of communities who depend on wildlife tourism and jeopardizing the lives of rangers. This cannot be allowed to continue, and UNEP and partners are running many initiatives to combat this illegal trade. Consider the African Elephant Action Plan, which trains park rangers to combat poachers and builds fences to minimize human-elephant conflicts. Or the Wild and Precious Exhibition, organized in conjunction with CITES, which aims to reduce consumer demand for ivory, rhino horn and other illegal wildlife products by demonstrating the blood price that is paid for such goods.
In June this year, the first-ever UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) will convene in Nairobi, where one of the chief subjects under discussion will be environmental rule of law in relation to the illegal exploitation of wildlife and timber. This historic gathering of environment ministers comes not a moment too soon. It provides a unique opportunity to build further political momentum and financial support for the action so urgently needed to conserve elephants, as well as the rhinos, forests and other natural resources that are the target of criminals only concerned with swelling their bank accounts.
In February, 46 states endorsed the ‘London Declaration’, which emphasizes urgent action to end wildlife trafficking and eliminate demand through high-level political commitment and international cooperation. This is a strong sign that the international community is ready to work together to end this crisis. Now, new and stronger measures must be implemented, from strengthening law enforcement and curbing demand, to giving more consideration to natural resource management and sustainable economic development. Implementing nationally and internationally agreed biodiversity strategies and targets, such as the Aichi Targets set by the Convention on Biodiversity’s 2011-2020 Strategic Plan, must be at the heart of such action.
I trust that member states attending UNEA will throw their combined weight behind this new concerted global effort, and ensure that we do not face a future in which one of Africa’s most iconic species, and many other treasures of biodiversity, are lost to the wild.