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Animals in Peril

Volume 629: debated on Wednesday 18 October 2017

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

In September, I read an article in the New Statesman entitled “We Are Heading Towards a World Without Animals”. It was a shocking title for an article perhaps, but one that presents a truly horrific prospect for our world. Perhaps we need to be shocked—shocked into taking deadly seriously what must surely be one of the most profound issues our world faces today.

This powerful article, written by Simon Barnes, considered some of the most deeply concerning statistics, which highlighted the plight of some of our planet’s most gravely endangered species. The article quotes the Living Planet Index, compiled by the Zoological Society of London and the WWF, and warns of a dramatic decline in wild animals by 2020, with 13,000 of the 65,000 species listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as being under threat, with 3,000 of those being critically endangered.

For example, African grey parrots have declined in numbers by up to 79% in the past 47 years, lions by 43% in 21 years and giraffes by 40% in 30 years. Possibly the worst of all is the decrease in the number of black rhinos—95% in the past 50 years. Primates are also drastically falling in numbers: a study published in the journal Science Advances revealed that 60% are threatened with extinction, including gorillas and chimpanzees. In the British Isles, we are by no means immune from the decrease in native species, with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reporting the hen harrier being close to extinction in the UK, the turtle dove declining by 93% since the ’70s and the skylark having a population 10% of what it was 30 years ago.

We have also lost 8% of our butterfly species and 3% of the beetle population, and hedgehogs are in huge decline too, with their numbers plummeting to around 1 million, compared to 36 million in the ’50s. As we all know, the red squirrel population continues to dwindle. I could go on.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for introducing this Adjournment debate and congratulate him on the hard work that he does on all these issues. May I say this to him very gently? Does he not agree that there is an onus on each of us not simply to refrain from harming animals, but to play our part in securing a better environment and habitat for animals? Will he join me in recognising the wonderful conservation work that is done in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland by the wildfowling clubs and, indeed, the country sports sector as a whole?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and agree entirely with his comments.

The author of the article does not pull his punches, stating that our planet is going through a significant change, that we are witnessing “right now” the process of widespread extinction and that humans

“seem to have accepted the idea that the loss of wild animals is the sad but acceptable price of progress…The loss of animal species is not seen as a serious matter—when did you last hear a politician talk about the extinction crisis?”

Well, tonight we are proving that assumption to be wrong: in this House of Commons and across the world, we must speak up about this crisis and do so with clarity, ever more loudly and with increasing frequency.

Keynote statistics about marine wildlife are also extremely alarming. The acidity and temperature of the seas are rising, and according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s 2016 report, “The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture”, 90% of fish stocks across the world are fully exploited, over-exploited or in crisis. With the global human population increasing and the demand for all natural resources sky rocketing, scientists are understandably pessimistic about the future. Rationalising why these significant and deplorable animal population decreases have happened, and how to stop them decreasing further, is now a vital matter that we simply have to address. If we do not, we may suddenly find ourselves in a world with little or no large mammalian wildlife and a fundamentally disturbed nature across land, sea and air. What an empty world that would be. None of us could feel pride in handing it to future generations.

It is important to note that the animals in peril across the world are not just the large, iconic creatures we all love so much. Indeed, the vast majority are not. We all need to study the work of ZSL’s “EDGE of Existence” programme, which prioritises species that are both evolutionary distinct and globally endangered according to the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. An example is the Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna. Named in honour of Sir David Attenborough, it was previously believed to be extinct. The EDGE programme uses a scientific approach to allocate limited funding most effectively to unique and special animals that could otherwise be so easily forgotten. If such species are lost, there will be nothing else like them on earth. I hope that the Minister with reassure the House that Her Majesty’s Government regularly consult organisations such as ZSL and IUCN for their expertise and input on environmental policy on worldwide ecosystems.

During my time as an MP, as shadow Animal Welfare Minister between 2007 and 2010, and as chairman of the zoos and aquariums all-party parliamentary group since 2010, I have been privileged to work with many wildlife, conservation and animal welfare organisations, especially the ZSL and the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and many esteemed environmental organisations devoted to protecting wildlife in all forms. Today, sadly, there is much pessimism about the future. The message from organisations such as the UN, the World Wide Fund for Nature, BIAZA, Fauna & Flora International and many others is clear: we are running out of time and more needs to be done—much more.

The scientific consensus for that point of view is global and extensive. Oregon State University’s “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: a second notice” article argues that humanity needs to be environmentally sustainable, and it has been signed by more than 13,000 scientists from across the world. How many scientists need to speak out before Governments, politicians and people from across the world realise that it is in mankind’s vital interests to ensure that our way of life is sustainable both now and in the future? The time to act is not next year or after the next election or at some point in the future; the time to act is now. For example, we are all aware of the dire threat to the bee population caused by some insecticides. Is it not obvious that we should be acting pre-emptively both on climate change and when the existence of vital ecosystems are threatened, rather than waiting for a real crisis point or, worse, for when it is too late?

Before I talk about the areas where I believe Her Majesty’s Government must do more, I want to mention the recently announced plans to ban the ivory trade in the UK. This ban is of course right, but it is long overdue. I commend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for taking the lead on the issue at long last and acting to halt the decline in the world’s elephant population. However, I fear that it may be seen in future years as too little, too late. The UK has been too slow to realise the enormous implications of the global ivory trade on the populations of large mammalian life, with the saddest statistics of all showing the ongoing collapse of the elephant population.

Around three quarters of a million African and Asian elephants exist in the wild today, but that number has fallen by 144,000 in the past seven years alone. I repeat: 144,000 in seven years. That rapid and seemingly out-of-control collapse is overwhelmingly due to the barbaric practice of poaching. Those numbers are astonishing and, on the face of it, show why the UK Government have done the right thing. However, why did we not act earlier? Of course we cannot turn the clock back, but we can learn from our mistakes and work to prevent a similar lack of foresight in future.

We must act faster to protect and save our wildlife by working with international organisations, both governmental and non-governmental, to do everything possible to crush poachers, to promote job creation in environmental conservation efforts across the world and, most importantly, to strive to rebalance our relationship with the natural world.

 In what has become an increasingly unstable world, I have no doubt that the United Kingdom will continue to play its full part in working with our allies on maintaining geopolitical stability and preventing humanitarian crises, but, as our world becomes more complicated and harder to govern, my fear is that nature suffers, often taking a lower priority.

Twenty years from now, what will we say if some of the world’s most iconic animals exist only in zoos and ecosystems across the world have collapsed or are on the verge of collapsing? How will we explain that to future generations?

We must surely make protecting our environment a key priority and a major destination of our resources. Our political system is designed to introduce, debate and pass legislation incrementally, and in this complicated age of domestic and international politics it is straining to find the time and energy to devote to such a big problem. With animal populations decreasing at such a dramatic rate, and with the global human population increasing by 83 million a year, we may need to be more radical in our approach.

I call upon Her Majesty’s Government to do the following. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs needs greater resources to place more people on the ground to protect animals and plants in peril across the world. The Department for International Development should also re-evaluate how it allocates money and consider how it might provide more help for anti-poaching efforts and environmental conservation.

The Government should also allocate more time in both the House of Commons and in the other place for debating environmental issues. Given the significance of some of the challenges we are discussing, using more of our time on this matter would not only be appropriate but would gain widespread public approval.

The Government also need to make greater commitments to international conventions and agreements and push for further-reaching targets, especially as we leave the European Union. For instance, will the Government commit to replacing the biodiversity strategy, adopted by the European Union in 2011, with an equal or greater British strategy? The United Kingdom has led the world on these issues in the past, and I have no doubt that the Minister will agree that Britain can and must do so again.

Additionally, the Government need to continue to commit to the UN’s sustainable development goals. Although those goals do not necessarily focus on the protection of wildlife alone, it is beyond question that to ensure wildlife is protected and sustainable, both in the UK and worldwide, we need to counter issues such as poverty, health, education and sustainable cities. On the last of those issues, it is important that in the UK we ensure our cities can be a home for wildlife. We can help people and nature by improving air and river quality, and by expanding the size and improving the health of green spaces in every urban area. In short, we must ensure that future legislation uses every opportunity to promote conservation.

Finally, we must use our international influence to help, persuade and, if necessary, press Governments across the world to be more environmentally sustainable, which I consider to be an appropriate use of British influence and power. We must lead the world by example, educate and persuade, and we must never give in.

I draw my speech to a close by reflecting on the good that can be done when animals and plants in peril are identified and helped. There are teams of scientists, conservationists, zoologists and environmentalists across the world, many underpaid or just volunteers, who are dedicating their lives to helping the environment in all ways. It is right that we in the House pay tribute to what they have done and continue to do in working so hard to study these issues, often with their feet on the ground, to protect and guard our wildlife and natural environment.

Many such examples, I am proud to say, are some of the excellent conservation projects on and around our overseas territories. The UK and its overseas territories combined represent the fifth largest marine estate in the world, and have been at the vanguard of global efforts to increase ocean protection through the blue belt policy to create the largest marine sanctuaries anywhere on the planet. The UK is custodian to a third of the world’s albatrosses, the world’s largest coral atoll and, believe it or not, perhaps more than a quarter of the global population of penguins; 2018 represents the first milestone in this Parliament for the blue belt, with the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands conducting a review of the sustainable-use marine protected area, encompassing more than 1 million sq km of its exclusive economic zone. The Great British oceans coalition, comprised of the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Greenpeace, BLUE, the Marine Conservation Society and the ZSL, is calling for the reclassification of the South Sandwich Islands as a fully protected reserve, highlighting that by safeguarding more than 500,000 sq km of pristine sub-Antarctic habitat, the UK can reaffirm its standing as a global leader by becoming the only nation in the world to create fully protected marine areas in the Indian, Pacific, Atlantic and Southern oceans.

When I learn of such fantastic and ambitious work being conducted in all corners of the planet, with Britain taking the lead, I am reassured. However, it cannot be business as usual. Although we are trying so hard to reverse and heal the damage caused to animal populations and wildlife across the world, it is pointless if we do not stop the cause of the problem. We need to engage ourselves in an enormous effort to guarantee the future of the wild, and the many animals and plants in peril, so that our successors can enjoy the knowledge of there being a wild beyond our shores, within these islands and on our very doorstep, and not find themselves in a world without animals.

In short, we as a civilisation, have to face up to one of the biggest challenges we will ever encounter: rebalancing how we fit within the natural world. As the great pioneer of conservation and founder of Jersey Zoo, Gerald Durrell, stated a generation ago:

“People think that I am just trying to look after nice, fluffy animals. What I am really trying to do is to stop the human race from committing suicide.”

That was an extraordinarily powerful and deeply troubling speech, and I agree with every word that my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) spoke, but I want to add a little bit of good news and I am going to use the 30 or 40 seconds I have available to do so.

This very morning, four gorillas born and bred in Kent landed in the Congo, where they are due to be released by the Aspinall Foundation and will live the rest of their lives free. There are now 60 gorillas that have been released by that organisation, and those gorillas have bred 30 babies, which means that there are 90 gorillas that would not be there were it not for the work of that organisation. It is the only organisation in the world even attempting to rehabilitate—to reintroduce—gorillas, and we are talking not just about gorillas, but about 10 black rhino, 100 primates, 15 European bison, hyenas and much more besides. All I would say is that in a bleak and depressing landscape it is important that we celebrate heroes, and Damian Aspinall, Amos Courage and the team that work with them are heroes, and they need to be celebrated for the work they do.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker, in my first time in doing so. I have to say that you look very good in that Chair.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on securing this debate. He has a strong track record in supporting animals and their welfare, and he is absolutely right to raise this important issue. The protection of endangered species around the world is a key priority for this Government, as we reaffirmed in our manifesto earlier this year. Both domestically and internationally, a strong economy needs a healthy environment. That requires healthy ecosystems, global biodiversity and the conservation of species. An estimated 40% of world trade is based on natural resources, but pressures on the global environment are increasing. Major ecosystems, and the species to which they are home, support the livelihoods of billions of people, but they are under threat. In short, protecting animals is as vital for us as it is for them.

We are taking action, bilaterally and through international agreements, to protect wildlife populations, whether they are threatened by poaching, habit loss or human-animal conflict. The United Kingdom is recognised as a global leader on environmental issues, whether by raising the illegal wildlife trade up the international agenda or through our commitment to tackling climate change, deforestation and ocean acidification.

We recognise the ongoing threat to elephants throughout much of Africa, so this month we announced our plans to ban the trade in ivory in the UK. We had already effectively limited trade in modern worked ivory and in all raw ivory. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford says it is “too little, too late”. I am concerned that he is not being generous enough, given that we already had the toughest laws and licensing regime in the European Union. I assure him that, if they go ahead as planned, the proposals will be the toughest in the world, except for those in India. I assure him that we are taking forward this important agenda.

The ban will build on the range of activities that we already undertake throughout Africa, to demonstrate further our global leadership in efforts to protect elephants and consign the ivory trade to history. We welcome the steps taken by other countries, particularly the USA and China, which has the largest market demand for ivory, to restrict their ivory markets. It is only through such international commitment and global co-operation that we will end this pernicious, blood-thirsty trade.

Nevertheless, I am sure my hon. Friend will recognise that the greater threat to animals in peril is habitat decline, whether because of direct human intervention or climate change. Deforestation not only destroys critical habitats for biodiversity but causes 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. As Members will see later this month in “Blue Planet II”, significant impacts on the polar ice caps are threatening wildlife directly, while ocean acidification threatens the food web itself.

Forests support 90% of the world's biodiversity, regulate water quality and mitigate climate change by absorbing and storing carbon. More than 1.6 billion people depend on forests for food, medicine and livelihoods. The UK is determined to eliminate deforestation in developing countries and is investing £5.8 billion through our international climate fund between 2016 and 2021, with additional focus on mitigation and adaptation. My Department is investing around £210 million to protect and restore more than 500,000 hectares of the world’s most biodiverse forests and create sustainable livelihoods for the 500,000 people who rely on their local ecosystems. These forests, from the mighty Amazon to mangroves in Madagascar, are also home to thousands of species of animals, birds, fish and insects, many of which are critically endangered.

We are aware that illegal logging can cause environmental and biodiversity damage, as well as having a disastrous effect on the people who live in and rely on forests. The UK has long been at the forefront of global action against illegal logging. As a result of the EU forest law enforcement, governance and trade plan, which the UK was instrumental in establishing, all timber exports from Indonesia are now certified as legal, compared with only 20% meeting that standard in 2005.

This year, we are marking the 25-year anniversary of the world-renowned Darwin initiative, which provides grants to projects in developing countries for the protection and enhancement of biodiversity. Since 1992, we have invested £140 million in 1,055 Darwin projects in 159 countries. The projects tackle issues that put animals in peril, from the loss of and damage to habitats caused by human activity, to the reduction of the use of poisonous pesticides. Recent projects have helped to conserve iconic species such as gorillas—I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), who is right to praise the work of the Aspinall Foundation—as well as snow leopards and elephants.

The Darwin initiative is also critical to the protection of some lesser known animals, including the Madagascan pochard, possibly the rarest bird in the world, which was saved from extinction, and the St Helena wirebird, whose conservation status has been downgraded from critically endangered to vulnerable. Darwin projects have also discovered new species—for example, a new amphibian in Colombia and Madagascar and a new land-snail in Thailand—and led to the re-discovery of a rare crane fly on St Helena that was thought to be extinct for decades. That shows that we must continue to help conserve and protect habitats, creating places where animal populations not only survive, but thrive.

The Darwin Plus fund bolsters our commitments by protecting the unique diversity of our overseas territories, which are home to 85% of the UK’s critically endangered species. Invasive non-native species are a significant problem on many of the overseas territories as they can attack native species. That is why we are contributing nearly £2 million to eradicate mice from Gough Island, where they decimate local populations of seabird chicks.

We also aim to protect more than 4 million sq km of ocean around the overseas territories, making them safe havens for marine creatures. We will create a marine protected area around Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island in the South Atlantic, a UNESCO world heritage site that is home to northern rockhopper penguins and the Tristan albatross. Pitcairn’s new marine protected area permanently closes around 840,000 sq km to commercial fishing, thereby protecting species of fish found nowhere else on earth.

We also play a leading role in promoting the protection of whales and dolphins. We work tirelessly within the International Whaling Commission to improve the conservation and welfare of these animals. Earlier this year, the UK made a voluntary donation of £200,000 to tackle critical threats to welfare such as bycatch in fisheries. We are also a very strong voice against the commercial and scientific whaling undertaken by Norway, Iceland, and Japan. We regularly apply diplomatic pressure to those countries to cease their activities, as I did just this week when I was at the G7.

The illegal wildlife trade is a serious criminal global industry. My hon. Friend will be aware that a lot of focus is on majestic species such as elephants, rhinos and lions, but the scale of illegal trade across all species is increasing. Indeed, pangolins are the most trafficked mammal. Unfortunately, their defence mechanism is to roll into a ball, which makes them even easier to poach and traffic. He should also be aware that flora is even more trafficked than fauna, including many plants, and rosewood has the greatest value of all. Early this year, a focused operation by Interpol across 43 countries seized birds, reptiles, seahorses and many other endangered species. I can assure him that the criminal enterprise of this scale is, unfortunately, only possible due to shocking levels of corruption. Therefore, in addition to legislative action, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is investing £26 million—that was announced by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House when she was Environment Secretary—which is double our previous investment. We are doing that to try to reduce demand, to strengthen law enforcement and to develop sustainable livelihoods for communities that live alongside such animals in peril.

There is also considerable work being done to develop sustainable wildlife tourism economies. Next October, the UK will host the fourth international conference on tackling illegal wildlife trade. We are committed to working with our international partners around the world to tackle the growing problem of illegal wildlife trade. Indeed, it is working with other nations to reduce demand and disrupt this crime that will truly make the difference. For this reason, the UK and China are jointly developing a law enforcement training project in southern Africa, fulfilling the commitment that we made at the 2017 illegal wildlife trade conference in Hanoi.

The UK is an active participant in the Convention on International Trade in International Species. At the last conference in which I participated, the UK was involved with up-listing a number of species from appendix II to appendix I under the convention, which means that they are now afforded enhanced protection from such trade. These species include one of the species to which my hon. Friend referred—the African grey parrot—as well as the Barbary macaque, the turquoise dwarf gecko and the Chinese crocodile lizard. The 12th conference of the Convention on Migratory Species is meeting later in October and we will continue to work to ensure that more species are afforded greater protection.

My hon. Friend was absolutely right to refer to the domestic species, but he will recognise that our focus is on pressures on habitat, which will continue to pose challenges, whether that be domestically or abroad. Our work to date shows that it is possible, with effort and commitment, to improve the chances of some of our most endangered species. It is not something that the UK can do alone. Global action is needed and global responsibility is required, but I can assure him and the House that the UK will play its part.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.