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Elephant Poaching

Volume 738: debated on Wednesday 4 July 2012

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures to address the increase in elephant poaching and the illegal sale of ivory to the Far East they plan to support at the Standing Committee meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species on 23 July.

My Lords, as a party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the UK is supportive of CITES’s increasing focus on enforcement and work to reduce elephant poaching and the illegal trade in ivory. Defra officials are working with the European Commission and other member states to agree a common position to be taken in preparing for, and negotiating at, the CITES meeting in three weeks’ time.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his reply but is he aware that a recent analysis, commissioned by CITES, indicates that as many as 12% of Africa’s elephants were poached last year in order to satisfy the burgeoning demand for ivory, particularly from Asia? Based on this analysis and the 2007 estimates of the continent’s elephant population, in excess of 35,000 elephants may have been killed last year. Can the Minister provide assurances that the British Government will use their influence to ensure that the European Union will reject any proposals for further ivory sales, including stockpiles, and the down-listing of the elephant population?

Yes, I can give the noble Lord that assurance. We certainly cannot be confident that smuggling and the poaching of ivory are currently under control. The Government take very seriously the threat to elephants and other wildlife from smuggling and the international trafficking of wildlife products. Richard Benyon, the Minister responsible, announced last year that the illegal trade under CITES, in particular the trade in elephant ivory, is a UK wildlife crime priority for the National Wildlife Crime Unit.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of Space for Giants, the wildlife charity. I heard what my noble friend said about a common position with the EU, but are this Government having direct conversations with member states to ensure that the EU votes as a bloc to prevent those further ivory sales?

That is exactly the purpose of the negotiations that Defra is engaged in at the moment. The meeting to be held in three weeks’ time is very important and we want to have a common position, which indeed will protect elephants from the threats that they face from poachers.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in South Africa almost two rhino are poached every day? The value of rhino horn is now in excess of the value of gold. What additional measures can be taken to protect the ever diminishing number of these beautiful and important animals in Africa?

I could not agree more with my noble friend. The threat to the rhino is acute, particularly given the scale of the population and the threat that it is under. The UK chairs a working group on this issue, with a wide remit to look at the question of poaching for rhino horn and the drivers of the illegal trade in it. This work is progressing well, and our leadership of that group is important.

My Lords, further to the question about black rhino horn, which was brought to my attention when I visited Chester Zoo recently, will the Minister have urgent consultations with the Vietnamese and Chinese ambassadors? The Vietnamese are very worried that black rhino horn, which is an aphrodisiac, is sold on to people in China. Will he turn his attention to that important area?

I am sure that the Government are well aware of these particular problems, the patterns of this illegal trade, and the threats that it poses to these populations. We are not complacent about it. I thank the noble Lord for that recommendation, and I am sure that colleagues will take that up.

My Lords, can the Government do more in terms of the cultures of those who are involved in this trade? Perhaps there are ways in which we could use technology to encourage young people who live in countries which deal in this trade to change their hearts and minds about the use of elephant tusks, and rhino horn in particular, and then ask them to have an influence on their elders.

Noble Lords will be aware that there are a number of programmes that are designed to address just these sorts of issues. However, these attitudes are complex, cultural, and difficult to shift. There are two ends to the problem. One is the weakness of enforcement in certain African countries, and the second is the persistent demand for these products. Both of them pose a threat to wildlife, and this Government are doing their best to stamp them out.

My Lords, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, poaching for ivory is on the rise and is of great concern. An example is the story of poachers from Sudan coming over and killing as many as 650 elephants in a Cameroonian national park in the first two months of this year. I am reassured by what the Minister said in terms of the UK position at CITES later on this month. Do the Government accept that their credibility in that negotiation is to some extent governed by how well we enforce CITES in this country? On that basis, will he give some reassurance about sustaining funding and support for the National Wildlife Crime Unit, which is responsible for gathering information and intelligence around CITES infringements in this country?

I think that I have already mentioned the commitment of my colleague, Mr Richard Benyon, and the high priority that this is being given. As noble Lords will know, the border agency is responsible for seizing these products and identifying them, and it operates, of course, on intelligence, which is most important. In many ways ivory has presented the least numerical challenge compared with many others in the CITES area. However, I agree that it is by demonstrating our own vigour that we present a confident position to our colleagues.