Evgeny Lebedev

Stop this ghastly trade in slaughter

The Evening Standard Thursday 13 February 2014

A conference in London today will try to stem demand for ivory — but it’s your donations that make a difference.

Just around the corner from my office is the Natural History Museum. Every so often I see excited groups of schoolchildren queuing up outside and I imagine the moment when they stare up at the flanks of a giant dinosaur skeleton and try to comprehend the unimaginable truth that this great beast once walked the same earth they do.

It seems unimaginable even to adults that in the not-too-distant future such moments might happen closer to home. Imagine a child, probably Chinese, picking up a tiny ivory ornament and trying to conceive of the intelligent, wondrous giant whose body it grew from, now gone for ever. It will be his parents’ job — and ours — to explain the unexplainable. That yes, we prized a little piece of tat above one of the great miracles of our planet.

At a conference in London today, the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Cambridge, African heads of state and, crucially, a Chinese delegation meet to try to end the illegal trade in wildlife parts. So many conferences turn out to be talking shops. This one must be different. It must be nothing less than a peace conference to end a war raging across Africa.

As The Independent, Independent on Sunday and the i have campaigned  to end the slaughter of elephants — with the help of the Evening Standard — I have seen it with my own eyes and had its rotten smell fill my nostrils.

One moment in the beautiful Kenyan highlands you are looking on in amazement as these giant beasts are grazing. The next, the unmistakable stench overwhelms you. Perhaps half a mile away there lies another, prostrate on the floor, tusks gone, a blizzard of flies where its face once was.

The maths of this war is bleak. Elephants, rhinos and tigers in their ever dwindling numbers represent supply. China’s billion people are the demand. It is a fatal mismatch. Chinese people want more ivory than there are elephants on Earth. In 2007, 13 South African rhinos were killed; last year it was 1,004.

It is this vast gulf between supply and demand that values the tusks of a large elephant at around £20,000, a rhino horn at perhaps more than £200,000. They are the numbers that have drawn in Africa’s darkest forces: Al-Shabaab, Janjaweed, the Lord’s Resistance Army. Africa’s heads of state are attending this conference not simply to tell China to curb demand. In many places such as the Central African Republic, illegal ivory money is a serious barrier to stability.

But the problem can only be meaningfully tackled at the demand end. As many as 40 per cent of Chinese do not know that elephants are killed for their tusks. Nor do they know of the thousands of men across east and central Africa who have been killed trying to save these extraordinary creatures. Anti-poaching units and park rangers, for the most part, are outfinanced and outgunned by the shadowy operatives of complex trafficking networks.

China understands the importance and romance of charismatic species. It has spent half a century deploying its giant pandas to open doors. Killing a panda there is punishable by death. Human beings shouldn’t be giving their lives to save animals, even the most magnificent ones, but what choice do African governments have? Chinese leaders must go home resolved to educate their people that every tiny ivory ornament is steeped not only in elephant blood, but human blood too.

It is also no coincidence that the planet’s most magnificent wildlife exists where humanity is hardest pressed. It is hardly surprising that life is dangerous for a rhino that walks the backyards of some of the world’s poorest people with a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of horn on its head. Wildlife conservation must be made to pay for poor people in poaching hotspots, where temptation and corruption too regularly overwhelms.

Our anti-poaching campaign so far has raised some £450,000 for Space for Giants, a charity committed to training anti-poaching units and creating safe havens for Africa’s elephants. Your money is making a direct difference already, and I would like to thank everyone who has donated.

I first visited Africa as a child: my grandfather was head of biology for the Soviet Union’s Academy of Science. There is nowhere like the African savannah to remind you of the coldness of the hand that drives nature. Flesh ripped apart by other flesh; the vultures circling. But it is a violence with survival at its heart. Cheetahs do not tear down gazelles to decorate their homes. Humans are supposed to be a higher species, yet our behaviour is the most shameful of all. We should know better, and we must do better. The alternative is bleak — and it is worryingly near.