Elephants and other endangered species could be driven to extinction unless Western governments begin to take the illegal wildlife trade as seriously as terrorism or drug running, the president of Gabon has warned.
Ali Bongo Ondimba, whose country is home to the world’s largest surviving population of forest elephants, called for an international intelligence and law enforcement effort to break up the transnational criminal groups who now dominate the trade in ivory.
“You still have people not believing that we can one day wake up without any African elephants. They say ‘oh, you’re exaggerating this’. But in the meantime, it is happening,” Mr Bongo told the Telegraph .
“We cannot win this battle alone,” he said. “We are being confronted now by a real network of illicit traffickers. It is an organised one, and it does not just end with wildlife. They are moving into gold, they are moving into human trafficking,” said Mr Bongo.
Mr Bongo and the Duke of Cambridge will be among dignitaries attending international conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade in London on Thursday.
The conference is the flagship event of a British-led diplomatic effort to put an end to a poaching crisis that has seen Africa’s elephant population plummet.
Scientists estimate just 415,000 elephants survive in Africa following a poaching crisis driven by rising disposable incomes and demand for luxury goods in east Asia.
Over 100,000, or 20 percent of the population, had been lost in the decade up to 2016, according to the last comprehensive estimate.
The trade in illegal wildlife products, including ivory, rhino horn, and pangolin scales, is estimated by the United Nations to be worth £18 billion annually.
Conservationists and law enforcement officials working across Africa say the trade is now controlled by increasingly sophisticated and well-funded criminal gangs who operate across borders, and often enjoy high-level protection from corrupt officials.
A previous conference held in London in 2014 led to a ban on the ivory trade in China that came into force on January 1 this year.
China is traditionally the largest market for contraband ivory, and the conservationists hope the move will mark a turning point in the crisis.
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But the crisis is far from over.
Mr Bongo said his government estimates it lost up to 25,000 forest elephants – about a third of the population – in a roughly five year period between the middle and end of last decade.
Mr Bongo said the focus on militarization and law enforcement would be insufficient without measures to mitigating human-elephant conflict and ensuring that local communities both understand and benefit from the economic value of a living elephant population.
He said he wanted to see major arms exporters, including the UK, US, and Russia, "be more careful" about who they sold weapons to.
"Poachers are using incredibly powerful weapons, and they are getting them from somewhere. But we need more cooperation between intelligence agencies to find out exactly where they are getting them from and who is supplying them," he said.
Gabonese wildlife rangers are engaged in firefights with poachers about once a month. The British Army runs a training program in the country to equip them to face often heavily armed poachers.
Lee White, the British head Gabon’s national parks agency who runs a counter-poaching task force, said Western governments remain reluctant to allocate intelligence or investigative resources to breaking up the syndicates armed gangs work for.
“The guys we end up fighting in the parks are basically cannon fodder. They’ve been press ganged by criminal gangs. Unless you go up the chain you’re not going to end it,” said Lee White,
He said his team had seen “tentative” engagement on intelligence from the United States and France, but none from Britain. He said a joint operation with French intelligence late last year resulting in the simultaenous arrest of a network in several countries was "a first" and could provide a model for future cooperation.
Mr White said he has seen the price per kilogram of ivory paid to front line poachers fall from roughly $200 to $100 in the past two years, possibly signalling that the crack down on the trade in China was having an impact.
Conservation charities on Wednesday called on governments to establish vetted, multi-agency task forces that have the mandate and capacity to tackle high level traffickers.
"International wildlife trafficking is a form of serious organised crime and a worldwide scourge which threatens to impoverish our planet by causing the extinction of many life forms as well as the destruction of habitats," said Ian Douglas Hamilton. "No single NGO or even government can tackle IWT alone."
The Elephant Protection Initiative, set up by 18 African governments after the last London wildlife trade conference in 2014, called on donor to commit one billion US Dollars over the next 12 years towards elephant conservation in Africa.
“Africa has set out an ambitious programme of elephant conservation,” said John Stephenson. If we invest one billion dollars by 2030, we can put elephants beyond the risk of extinction, protect habitats, and help communities who live alongside wildlife.”
Representatives of EPI countries, including Gabon, Tanzania, and Botswana, will discuss their national strategies with the Duke of Cambridge at a closed session this afternoon.