The Illegal Wildlife Trade conference must shine a spotlight on the plight of Asian elephants

The burgeoning illegal skin trade means we must act now to save this seriously endangered species

OP-ED by Head of Conservation, Belinda Stewart-Cox OBE, appeared in The Independent

On 11 October, London will host its second Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) conference. Its aim – according to then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who spoke at the July reception at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to mark the 100 day countdown to the conference – is to do for the illegal wildlife trade what Kyoto did for CO² emissions.

“We must act now,” said Johnson. “Or future generations will not forgive us. We must do something to tip the balance in favour of the natural world – we must protect habitats and their economic value. We are here tonight because we all agree that we need to stop the nauseating and ignorant trade in wildlife.”

The examples he gave of what the UK was doing focused on ivory – the work to end UK sales and set up an ivory alliance. “We must do this with pace,” he added. “The numbers are so terrifyingly small.”

There was a nod to wild tiger numbers – there are more members of the Reform Club than Bengal tigers, there are more peers in the House of Lords than Siberian tigers he pointed out – but not once, despite enjoying a photo call with them earlier that day at Whipsnade Zoo, did Johnson mention Asian elephants; a species all but forgotten in the current illegal wildlife trade dialogue. A species that numbers as few as 40,000 – 10% that of its charismatic African cousin. A species perilously close to the precincts of survival.

An undercover investigative report published by Elephant Family recently highlighted the threat to Asia’s elephants from a burgeoning illegal skin trade. Unlike the ivory trade, this trade is indiscriminate. No elephant is safe. Males, females and calves are targeted, their skin turned into medicines and jewellery. For a slow breeding species the removal of breeding females is a sure route to extinction.

When I asked why Asian elephants are not on the agenda, even though they are ecologically and economically as important in their region as African elephants, Johnson blustered a profuse apology.

But apologies don’t save species. Raising awareness, open dialogue, political will and funding might. The IWT meeting in October, and the CITES Standing Committee before it in Sochi, provide an opportunity to redress the balance; not on such a grand scale as Johnson aspires to for the natural world as a whole but for a species that lives not only in the shadow of its African cousin but of extinction.

With the support of Zac Goldsmith MP who has been brought in to help coordinate the IWT conference, Elephant Family has been given an opportunity to get Asian elephants onto the agenda.

It’s not future generations who will not forgive us if we do not. We won’t forgive ourselves. Asian elephants are so seriously threatened that we must help them in their own right. We don’t lump lions and tigers together. So why are we treating Asian elephants as less important than African elephants?

Belinda Stewart-Cox OBE is Head of Conservation at Elephant Family


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