THE BLOG
02/18/2014 11:42 am ET | Updated Apr 20, 2014

Illegal Wildlife Trade Threatens Global Security

Almost five hundred years ago, in 1515, the German artist Albrecht Dürer made a woodcut of a rhinoceros that has become famous throughout the world. The exotic image delighted Europe in its own day. Centuries later, it was still being published in biology textbooks.

Tragically, images may soon be all we have left of these magnificent creatures. The Western Black Rhino has already been declared extinct, and the remaining species are under threat. Every 11 hours, poachers kill another rhino. By this time tomorrow, statistically speaking, two more will be dead.

The danger is not limited to rhinos. Tigers, hunted for their skin and bones, teeter on the brink of extinction. Recent massacres of elephants in Chad, the Central African Republic and Zimbabwe shocked the world. But they are just the tip of the iceberg. Poachers kill tens of thousands of elephants every year. Around the world, poaching threatens hundreds more species.

This is a tragedy for the natural world, and that alone would make it a matter of global concern. But it is increasingly clear that it is also a security threat. Rhino horn can be worth more, gram for gram, than cocaine. High profits, coupled with a low risk of prosecution, attract criminals of all kinds to the illegal trade in wildlife products. There is even evidence that it funds terrorism.

We have got to act to end this trade. That obligation goes well beyond the 'range states'--the countries where poaching takes place. As Hillary Clinton has pointed out, the United States is the world's second biggest consumer of illegal animal products, behind China. The European Union is a major transit hub for those products. In order to fight the trade, we will need concerted international effort from countries of all three types--range, consumer and transit.

That is why, last week, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron convened the London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade. The Conference brought together representatives from 50 governments. Significantly, China sent a delegation headed by a government minister, which reflects the increased importance the Chinese government attaches to this issue. The US delegation included senior officials from the Departments of Justice, State and Interior. It was the first time this issue has been tackled at such a high level by so many nations. Three Princes--Charles, William and Harry--leant their voices by attending as part of the UK delegation.

Delegates signed a Declaration that identified three fundamental goals. First, catch, prosecute and seize the assets of those who make a living from the illegal wildlife trade. Second, reduce the demand for illegal wildlife products. And third, support alternative livelihoods for communities that currently make a living from the trade.

The conference was also an opportunity to highlight further efforts to tackle the illegal wildlife trade. The leaders of Botswana, Gabon, Chad and Tanzania--all countries with high rates of poaching--agreed to a ten-year ban on ivory sales. Prince William launched a new alliance of charities, United for Wildlife, that brings together Conservation International, the World Wildlife Fund, London Zoo and others to raise awareness of the issue and educate communities involved in the trade about the risks it poses. The United States unveiled a new National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, which aims to strengthen enforcement, reduce demand and build partnerships with other countries, local communities, charities and businesses.

These are all encouraging signs. But there is much more to do to convert pledges into action. The challenge for the next few years will be to maintain the momentum, and to keep the issue at the front of people's minds. As Prince William said, we must be the generation that eradicated this appalling trade--and we can be. But only if we focus relentlessly on taking action to address it.