Skip to main content

International Endangered Species

Volume 593: debated on Tuesday 3 March 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mel Stride.)

I welcome the opportunity to discuss this important matter. I note that the debate falls on world animal day, which is a fortuitous coincidence. If the mysteries of your office had anything to do with it, Mr Speaker, I am very grateful.

This is the second debate on endangered species that I have introduced since becoming a Member of Parliament, the first having taken place on 1 May 2002. On that occasion, I told the House that, according to a figure that I had been given by the Born Free Foundation, there were 2,155 critically endangered species. I am sorry to say that, according to the foundation, the figure has risen to 2,510 in the intervening years, and that it includes 213 mammals, 213 birds, 174 reptiles and 518 amphibians. Appallingly, 26% of known mammal species are now threatened with extinction, and the number of wild animals on earth has halved in the last 40 years.

I could continue to give figures indefinitely, but let me instead give one or two examples to support my case. In 1900 or thereabouts, there were 100,000 tigers in the wild, but there are now more tigers in United States zoos than there are in the wild. Central Africa has lost 64% of its elephants in just 10 years, and 50,000 were slaughtered in 2013 alone. In our oceans, 73 million sharks are being killed every year for their fins. All eight pangolin species are close to extinction, and 1 million have been traded over the last decade. Sadly, as they near extinction, the desire of hunters to find them increases rather than decreases.

What is the reason for all that? It comes down to money. According to research carried out by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the illegal trade in endangered species is worth $19 billion a year. That is a huge amount of money for people who are involved in criminal activity which, of course, can also be brutal and mercenary. When I was a Home Office Minister, I heard a story about an African country where rangers were trying to protect the animals. A helicopter landed, full of very well-armed individuals who simply mowed down all the rangers and all the animals. Apparently, that was not particularly unusual.

The good news is that the coalition Government has been leading on this matter. I particularly congratulate the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague), on the leadership that he has provided. I was very pleased to co-chair a section of the February 2014 conference which led to a London declaration and 41 countries signing up to a course of action. There will be a follow-up when the Botswana conference takes place later this month, and I pay tribute to Foreign Office officials for the work they are doing in preparing for that event. Let me also acknowledge the work that is being done by Border Force. When I was a Minister, I had an opportunity to observe its superb work at Heathrow in identifying those who trade in endangered species, and the expertise that it has developed.

What must we do? I am pleased to say that the Government is already taking some action, but more is needed. First, we must reinforce the help that we are giving to developed countries to protect their animals. That means giving them military help, financial help, and help with economic planning, so that tourism, for example, can provide them with a valuable alternative income stream. At the London conference that I attended last year, one of the key “asks” was for Land Rovers to enable rangers to travel around more quickly. I hope that the Government has noted those points, which may seem small, but which are very important when it comes to helping developing countries.

I welcome the £5 million that has been allocated by the Departments for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and for International Development, but I hope that, notwithstanding the current financial situation, the Government will be able to find more money to help to deal with this important matter, and will encourage other countries to follow suit.

Secondly, we need to engage with end markets. In particular, we must try to persuade China to cut off the demand for products such as ivory and rhino horn. They are used in so-called medicinal solutions, but I believe that they are medicinally worthless. I understand that rhino horn, for instance, is about as much use as a fingernail when taken in a attempt to cure a particular condition.

Thirdly, we need to deal with transportation measures and tackle how products are taken from A to B. I know the Leader of the House is dealing with this in a different capacity now. So there is a lot to do; I am pleased the Government is doing a lot, but there is still more that can be done.

In particular I ask the UK Government to look at the issue of online sales. We have to go further than we have done on that. IFAW investigators have found a total of 33,000 wildlife and wildlife parts and products from species listed in appendixes I and II of the convention on international trade in endangered species for sale in over 9,000 ads online. We should be requiring online marketplaces to alert users to the legal position. I should be grateful if the Minister responded to that point and told me whether the Government are considering that matter.

We also need to look at ensuring long-term funding for the national wildlife crime unit. I am happy to say that, partly when I was in office, the funding was extended to 2016, but it would be helpful if the Minister could say—notwithstanding the fact that we cannot tie the hands of a future Parliament—that the intention is to carry on funding that very important unit.

We must also reinstate a dedicated post for wildlife cyber-crime. This appears to have vanished and is terribly important, particularly if we are going to deal with the issue of online marketplaces. That may be just an unfortunate cut, but it is necessary to reinstate it. It may not even be about more money; it may simply be about a reallocation of individuals, but it is important that that post is filled.

We must also confirm that the trade is covered by the serious and organised crime strategy. I believe it is, but it will be helpful if the Minister can confirm that the Home Office strategy for serious and organised crime takes account of endangered species. I know from my time in office that the people who deal in endangered species may well be dealing in children one week or guns or drugs or something else. They do not really care; they are completely lacking in morality. All they are interested in is making money. This is not just about protecting endangered species, vital thought that is; it is also about making sure we interrupt these people in their activities, whatever they are dealing with at any particular time.

Finally, I ask the Minister to deal with the regulations on the control of trade in endangered species. I understand that it is the Government’s intention to update the regulations, which I welcome, but I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed that we will be able to do so before we reach purdah at the end of the month. It will be unfortunate if this matter rolls over. He knows as well as I do that when a new Government takes office—even if it is the same one—there are so many things to sort out that matters such as this can be shoved down the agenda. This is a simple matter that I think the Government is committed to. If we are able to deal with it before we end this Parliament, that will be very helpful. I hope the Minister is able to deal with those three or four points in his response to me.

The level of extinctions is terrifying. We are in danger of losing species in our lifetime—I say that even as someone who is middle-aged. I understand that the dinosaurs took 250,000 years to become extinct in the last mass extinction. We could lose the tiger and other species in 25 years. I do not want to be a member of the human race—and I do not think anyone in this House does either—who sees such species disappearing in our lifetime. So I urge the Government, not simply to carry on with what it is doing, which is welcome, but to redouble its efforts at Botswana and elsewhere to protect these endangered species, engaging with our colleagues in other countries to make sure we do all we can so that future generations can benefit from the wonderful species around the world, just as we have in our lifetime.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on securing this most appropriate debate as today is, as he pointed out, world wildlife day. Individuals and organisations will be marking the day with events around the world, and I note that the right hon. Gentleman has been particularly busy highlighting the problems our wildlife face with the release of his “Animal Countdown” CD. Before this debate I went online to listen to it and it is not bad—it is pretty good and certainly does highlight this very important issue. On world wildlife day, we celebrate the intrinsic value of animals and plants, but we also highlight the severe threats that they face. Those threats range from habitat destruction and climate change to the illegal wildlife trade and poaching, which is threatening to decimate many species, as he pointed out.

Much of our ongoing effort to combat those threats is undertaken through work in the relevant international conventions, including the convention on biological diversity and the convention on international trade in endangered species. The UK Government provide direct support to countries that are rich in biodiversity but poor in financial resource. This includes work in our overseas territories through the globally respected Darwin initiative. More than 900 projects totalling around £110 million have been funded since 1992, supporting habitat and species from elephants to the mountain chicken, which is not actually a chicken but a type of frog native to the Caribbean islands of Dominica and Montserrat. The global tiger initiative has brought together all the tiger range states, as well as concerned Governments —including that of the UK—and academics and non-governmental organisations involved in the global tiger recovery programme. The programme aims to double the number of tigers in the wild by 2022, and the UK has committed funding equivalent to $500,000 to support that work.

This year’s theme for world wildlife day is wildlife crime. In recent years, it is the scourge of poaching that has focused many minds as it threatens some of the world’s most iconic species, including elephants, rhinos and tigers. There was wide recognition that more needed to be done and I am pleased to say that this Government are a global leader in efforts by the international community to tackle this issue, as the right hon. Gentleman acknowledged. The illegal wildlife trade not only threatens the future existence of whole species; it devastates already vulnerable communities co-existing with these species, drives corruption and undermines our efforts to cut poverty. The right hon. Gentleman gave an example of gunmen killing all the animals and all the rangers. Murder is being committed, and we should recognise the fact that many of the rangers who are trying to fight the scourge of poaching are putting their lives at risk. This illegal trade strikes at the very heart of our goals for good governance, for the protection of national and regional security, and for sustainable economic development.

The number of animals being poached is truly horrific. At least 20,000 elephant poaching deaths were recorded in 2013. In 2014, the Government of South Africa reported that 1,215 rhinoceroses were killed by poachers. That is a staggering increase, up from 13 killed in 2007. This wholesale slaughter is being driven by greed and by organised criminal syndicates. The price of ivory in China trebled between 2010 and 2014.

Recognising the rapidly deteriorating situation, in February last year the Government hosted the London conference on the illegal wildlife trade. High-level representatives from 41 countries and 10 international organisations came together to agree a set of urgent actions. The conference delivered an ambitious political declaration containing 25 commitments to take action on, for example, reducing demand for illegal wildlife products, ensuring effective legal frameworks and deterrents across the globe, strengthening law enforcement and supporting sustainable livelihoods. Those 25 commitments included Governments committing for the first time to renounce the use of any products from species threatened with extinction, and Governments supporting the CITES commercial prohibition on international trade in elephant ivory until the survival of elephants in the wild is no longer threatened by poaching. Governments also committed to treating poaching and trafficking as a serious organised crime in the same category as drugs, arms and people trafficking.

In December last year, we announced funding for 14 projects as part of the illegal wildlife trade challenge fund, worth almost £4 million. That will help developing countries to tackle the illegal wildlife trade, and it is in addition to the five projects that we funded earlier in 2014. This means that we are now supporting 19 projects with a value of more than £5 million over the next four years.

There is also some evidence that other countries are starting to follow our lead. Over the past year, there have been many positive examples of countries taking action to deliver the commitments made in the London declaration. As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, just last week China announced a 12-month immediate ban on the importation of carved ivory, in support of its efforts to protect elephants in Africa. His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge is currently in China as part of his visit to the far east. He is undertaking engagements there in support of his work to combat the illegal wildlife trade and support wildlife conservation. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs raised the issue of illegal wildlife trade during her recent visit to China at the beginning of this year. In Vietnam, the penal code is being amended to incorporate stronger and more deterrent sanctions against environmental crimes, including the illegal trade in endangered species.

UK enforcement bodies play an active role in combating wildlife trafficking, and I commend the excellent work of the national wildlife crime unit and the UK Border Force. The right hon. Gentleman asked about the future funding of that unit. Like him, I have been passionate about supporting it, and DEFRA certainly made funding available to it up until 2016. Having been in government, he will be familiar with the way in which funding works, and we will have to wait until the next spending review period before we can make specific commitments on it. I hope he will accept that in recognising the unit’s good work, I am sending a strong signal in support of its efforts to tackle this difficult problem. Hon. Members may recall a case last year of an interception at Heathrow of very rare San Salvador rock iguanas being smuggled from the Bahamas. We were able to return 12 of these critically endangered species to their natural habitat. Sadly, one of the iguanas died, but I am pleased to say that the criminals responsible received 12-month custodial sentences. The success of that operation was due to the excellent work carried out by the Border Force CITES enforcement team based at Heathrow.

As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, there is more to be done on intercepting smuggling during transportation. I therefore welcome the creation of an international taskforce to examine the role of the transportation industry in the trafficking of illegal wildlife products. His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge launched that in December 2014, and my right hon. Friend the First Secretary of State and Leader of the House—the right hon. Gentleman also mentioned him—has agreed to chair that important taskforce. The taskforce, including representatives from the global transport industry, will develop industry-wide protocols for the sector to strengthen measures it can take to help to eliminate this trafficking. Through the illegal wildlife trade challenge fund, the Government are supporting work such as the border point project, stopping illegal wildlife trade in the horn of Africa. We are also providing funding to the Born Free Foundation to improve enforcement by sending experts to border points to increase the knowledge and skills of local officials.

The right hon. Gentleman finished his speech slightly sooner than I thought he would, so my officials have been working overtime to ensure that I have answers to some of his questions. He asked about the serious and organised crime strategy, and I can confirm that it does cover the illegal wildlife trade. I have covered the point about the national wildlife crime unit; we support the work it does, but, obviously, we are bound by the fact that we have to await the next spending review before making any final commitments on that front. He also asked for an update on any progress being made on updating the CITES regulations. The Government are continuing to take forward the review of CITES regulations, and consultation on proposed changes is taking place. We recognise that the remaining time is limited within this Parliament, but it remains this Government’s intention to progress as far as we can the laying of that updated legislation before the House.

Just before the Minister concludes, will he say something about the issue of online trading and what steps the Government can take to alert buyers to the potential illegality of their purchases?

I have answered parliamentary questions on that matter, and my understanding is that that is something the National Crime Agency was doing. There used to be a designated person dealing with that matter. The fact that that post no longer exists does not mean that the work is not being done. It simply means that there is not a single designated person doing it. I am happy to write to the right hon. Gentleman about this matter. As he will know, this specific issue is within the portfolio of my noble Friend Lord de Mauley, and I will ask him to clarify the position on online crimes.

The Government are strongly committed to protecting our world’s endangered species, and in particular to supporting the international community to tackle poaching and the trafficking of wildlife. As the follow-up to the London conference, the Government of Botswana are hosting a second conference in Kasane. That conference is an opportunity to recognise the progress that has been made globally on combating the illegal wildlife trade, and importantly to maintain the priority and focus directed towards this issue achieved at the London conference.

The UK has worked closely to support the Government of Botswana in developing a range of ambitious outcomes. We expect Governments to commit to actions that build on the London declaration. That is likely to include strengthening work to reduce the demand and supply sides for illegal wildlife products, and action to tackle money laundering and other kinds of financial crime associated with the illegal wildlife trade. Those are the sorts of action that we need to take. As an international community, we need to do everything possible to ensure that these magnificent and yet sadly—in some cases—endangered species have all the protection that humanity can offer.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.