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Interview: Love wildlife in hearts, but never in wallets, says UNEP chief

Shanghai Daily
Mar 05,2014

NAIROBI, March 5 (Xinhua) — The world needs people to love wildlife in their hearts, but never in their wallets, says the head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), calling on people and governments to urgently move for the protection of the plant’s dwindling treasure of wild flora and fauna.

THE INCREASING THREAT

Poaching and illegal trade constitute the “most dramatically increasing threat” to the world’s wildlife, particularly for high value or the so-called iconic species like the elephant or rhino, said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner in a recent interview with Xinhua.

“We are seeing at the moment escalation both in terms of scale and also the violence involved in poaching on the African continent that we have not seen in a long time,” he said.

For example, he said, the threat is so real and serious that particular populations of elephants in certain parts of the continent may not longer be able to survive in 10 or 15 years. The number of rhinoceros is also decreasing dramatically due to rampant poaching, with only about a few thousand remaining in certain parts of Africa.

Governments worldwide have recognized that poaching, illegal trade, criminal networks and even the drug trade are intertwined with each other, posing a combined threat to national and global security. People are being killed in the war over wildlife by heavily armed poachers. Markets are in every different parts of the world while a thirst for monetary gains leads to a major erosion of national capacities to protect wildlife.

“This is why we are seeing these dramatic numbers increasing particularly with elephants and rhino poaching,” said the UNEP chief. “That is something that requires not only legislation, not only security interventions, (but) it requires also public awareness.”

“We need people to know that when you buy a piece of ivory that is illegally traded, you are directly contributing to threatening the survival of that species in due course,” he stressed.

THE UNDERLYING ILLS

At the macroeconomic level, the wildlife populations in Africa are earning African economies and nations a lot of money through tourism that allows the creation of infrastructure and millions of jobs, he said.

“But in the system of national accounting, we don’t really value that contribution of that natural capital to the gross domestic product,” said Steiner.”For that reason, there exists underestimation of the economic value of wildlife at the level of national economic and financial accounting.”

At the same time, in Africa in particular, and in other parts of the world as well, poverty is the major mechanism for those who want to make money to essentially buy people who will be going into the dirty work, including poaching, he said.

“Unfortunately we have seen that the market for ivory particularly in rhino horn have exploded in value. The wealth of the new middle classes allows an amount of money to be transacted in this illegal trade,” he said.

Corruption becomes a major corrosive force in it, with officials in countries being bought, as evidenced in cases time and again around the world. But corruption is not unique either to the continent of Africa, Asia or Latin America, he said. “When there is big money involved, there is corruption. Corruption is essentially eroding the laws and systems that are in place.”

But the most important impact the world can have is the public awareness, he said. “If people say to you why are you wearing ivory? Are you sure you know where ivory came from? It becomes no longer a issue of pride and social status, but rather a liability amongst your friends your community.”

“Then I think the illegal trader would struggle to maintain that kind of economy of crime that allows poaching to sustain itself at the moment,” he said.

“In the end, it is you and I who are buying these ivories. If you are not buying, then the middlemen have no business and the poachers have no incentives, and governments can concentrate on conservation investment on protecting habitats and managing wildlife.”

It is the responsibility for “our generation to protect and to maintain the wildlife for future benefit of our nations and our economies,” he said.

THE FOCUS TO COMBAT

Although in theory there could be authorized trade of wildlife products, like the ivory from elephants died of age or even ivory that is confiscated, right now the focus of most African nations is not so much as trade, but how to combat the illegal trade, he said.

“Therefore our intention both at the international level and in terms of national initiatives is to try to understand who are the people behind these trades. What are the networks they are using. How do they use money to corrupt officials obtaining false permits, certifications that are simply manufactured, and therefore are being used to allow these trades to take place, plus the trade that is hidden from public attention, smuggled in packages of other products, entering through harbors and by road into countries,” he said.

To combat the threat in a holistic and more efficient way, the transit countries, market countries and source countries have to work together,” he said. “That is why the instruments of the international system including the UN, Interpol, conventions are instruments that should allow us to be more effectively united against this illegal trade.”

He called for more support for countries in Africa that do not have the financial resources to fight the illegal trade, like monitoring by aircraft or offshore monitoring, x-ray equipment for custom officials to control the thousands of containers that leave this continent everyday and arrive on this continent.

Partnerships between the developed and developing countries should also be established in order to strengthen the capacity for shutting down the illegal trade, he added.