Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, rose to new heights as an international leader earlier this month when he traveled to the United States to address The World Bank on the need to end the illegal wildlife trade. As someone who has been leading the international fight to end the illegal poaching of elephants for 25 years, I applaud his leadership and urge him to continue to fight this fight which can be won.
I know it is possible, because when it comes to elephant tusks, we've already won it once. In the 1990s I led the Kenya Wildlife Service, and we destroyed the illegal market for ivory both in Kenya and other African States. I drew worldwide media attention to the problem when I arranged for a very public burning of 12 tons of ivory in Kenya. As a result of the global publicity and a subsequent ban on international trade, the price of ivory dropped from $150 per pound to about $5. That took the money out of the business, and the business dried up - assisted, of course, by a strong law enforcement effort.
The problem is that the ivory trade comes back, and so it has to be driven down again. There's so much money in the illegal wildlife trade that organized crime syndicates are now driving it. As Prince William wrote last week in a commentary for The Huffington Post, the illegal wildlife trade "is now estimated to be worth between $10 and $20 billion." That's led to the killing of 40,000 African elephants annually - and that's just one element of the broader trade.
The illegal wildlife trade has also taken on new dimensions that were not present previously. Now terrorism and drug trafficking are funded in part by it. That's why the issue is not just about animals - as important as they are. It's about the kind of global community we want.
In The Huffington Post, Prince William wrote, "This is a complex issue which requires a concerted global response to eradicate wildlife crime - as vigorous and as forceful as the trade itself. Cooperation is our greatest weapon and we must be brave and ambitious in taking a truly international approach to get one step ahead of the criminals and hold to account those who look the other way. This morning, I will call upon experts, policy makers, anti-corruption agents, prosecutors and private companies to help in this task. Together, we have the means to stop this corrosive trade."
Prince William is right on every point, but I would add two others. First, while many developed countries provide the leading markets for the illegal wildlife trade, Africa - and I am an African - must take more responsibility for the illegal wildlife killings that take place, especially the African elephants. It is Africa's heritage that is being destroyed, so that criminals can fuel their own lifestyles and reap whatever destruction suits their needs.
The second point I would add is the vital role for the general public throughout the world. It has two parts: First, people should stop buying items that contain ivory or parts of other endangered animals. If we the people stop buying them, there will be no market for criminals to exploit. Second, we should all demand that every nation - and even states and cities - ban any domestic sales or trade in ivory or parts of other endangered animals. Many nations have ivory bans in place in theory, but they should be implemented and extended to local communities. City councils around the world should put their own bans in place.
The fight to save the world's wildlife is about much more than the beauty of the animals or the illegal activity that would destroy them. Our wildlife is essential to preserving the biodiversity of our world and to expanding our understanding and appreciation of human and animal life and evolution.
I've spent most of my professional career exploring human evolution in Kenya, where I now chair the Turkana Basin Institute as a professor at Stony Brook University. Our own understanding of humankind - how we came to be the way we are, and what it will take to survive going forward - is intricately interwoven with the animal world. We change the balance at our own risk.
In his speech at The World Bank, Prince William, who is now President of the international coalition United for Wildlife, noted that he was inspired by his grandfather and his father who have championed international conservation for more than 50 years. He continued:
"From them I learned that our relation to nature and wildlife goes to the heart of our identity as human beings - from our sheer survival to our appreciation of beauty and our connection to all other living things. Seen in this light, the extinction of any of the world's species of animals is a loss to all humanity. But furthermore wildlife crime goes to the heart of our security. It recognizes neither national borders nor national interests. It distorts economic development, undermines the rule of law, and fuels sources of conflict. Unchecked, it can be a factor in the spread of infectious diseases with a devastating toll. Illegal trade threatens to wipe out the natural endowments of affected nations by depriving future generations of their heritage and of their right to develop those resources in legitimate ways."
Bravo! The world needs this new international leader on animal conservation. As I celebrate this week my 70th birthday and my 25th anniversary fighting illegal wildlife trade, I cannot think of a better gift. It's a gift to us all that we should cherish, and we must support his calls for action.
The author, a world-renowned anthropologist, is Professor and Chair of Stony Brook University's Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya.