TV wildlife champion Ben Fogle has called for philanthropists and big businesses to step in to help save elephants and other species from extinction, warning: “We are running out of time.”
The award-winning conservationist and presenter issued a plea to world leaders to tackle the threats to global wildlife just as urgently as pressing issues such as Brexit, security and global migration.
Fogle, who is leading an event on biodiversity at this week’s Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference in London, also appealed to people everywhere to avoid “conspicuous consumption” that is environmentally damaging.
More than 1,000 delegates from 82 countries, including 24 African nations, will be at the fourth – and biggest ever – international conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade in London this Thursday and Friday, with the aim of disrupting the criminal gangs behind the £17 billion-a-year rackets that threaten a host of species.
Much of the focus will be on African elephants, which are being wiped out at a rate of up to 96 a day – as many as one every 15 minutes. With fewer births than deaths, this would mean humans are on course to drive the African elephant into extinction within decades, experts say.
As he prepared for the crunch conference, Fogle told The Independent more resources for foot patrols to outwit deadly poaching gangs were vital to “begin to win the battle”.
“I would like to see the commercial sector helping us with the financing. Just a few philanthropists or big businesses could make a real financial difference with the help of local government and people,” he said.
“What we need are increased resources, infrastructure and feet on the ground, along with real and sustained political will to seriously tackle wildlife crime.
“Hunting safaris often argue that they are better at protecting the wildlife because they have the manpower. We need to offer a similar solution for those animals outside those private hunting concessions.
“We need outside financing for foot patrols. The small poaching units can be deathly effective, but with resources, technology and manpower there is no reason why we can’t outwit them and begin to win the battle.”
Underlining the role on the planet played by species such as elephants, primates and big cats, as well as trees and plants, Fogle said they were vital to human survival.
“Protecting species means protecting the habitats they live in. These ecosystems work to provide our clean air, fresh water and temperature regulation. So we must look at taking care of nature as an imperative; it really is an existential issue,” he said.
Fogle, who has made more than a dozen films on wildlife in Africa, said that farming, human overpopulation and consumerism “have a lot to account for”.
“The illegal wildlife trade is a symptom of greed, money, overpopulation, farming, hunting, consumers, poverty – the list is endless,” said Fogle.
“Factory farming naturally has a negative impact on the planet. This needs to be addressed urgently because if we keep pushing into wilderness to make way for farming and agriculture we will have no space for the precious few wild species and pristine habitats we have left.”
To slow human population expansion, educating women in particular was important, he said. “They become much more able to take personal action and responsibility when they are empowered. We each need to own our individual responsibility for being custodians of a healthy planet.
“The problem is that we monetise everything, and manufacturers rarely are held accountable for their destructive supply chains.
“All of us must use our voices … to get our society to start considering the impact of our purchasing behaviours. We need to transform our society toward conscious versus conspicuous consumption. We have power in our wallets.
“We can reward companies doing good by choosing to buy their products and educating our friends. The other side of the coin is saying no to companies with bad supply chain habits.
“I also feel technology will play an increasingly important role in tackling illegal trade. As technology evolves, so too does our ability to come up with effective solutions.
“We are talking about protecting precious animals. We can send man to the moon and decode the genome so surely we can protect elephants and pangolins?”
Tanzania has been identified as the world’s biggest ivory poaching hot spot, and China its largest market, accounting for up to three-quarters of smuggled tusks, with corrupt African officials implicated in dealing with Chinese criminal gangs.
Africa’s armed terror groups fuel the networks that hunt down elephants to sell tusks to buy weapons.
“Guarding against poachers and trafficking is incredibly difficult, particularly with the ever-shifting nature of trafficking routes and a seemingly insatiable demand. It’s easy to be pessimistic about the challenges we face,” Fogle said.
“But the illegal wildlife trade comes down to the demand for animals and their parts fuelled by greedy, opportunistic traffickers and clever marketers who peddle the stuff.”
“I have visited open markets selling absolutely every species of endangered animal. Some is used for pseudo medicine, others are used for ornaments, trophies, status symbols, fashion, exotic pets – the list goes on. It is heartbreaking.”
He said that as well as foot patrols, work was needed to change the desire to buy such animal products.
“As it happens, from my own experiences, the smaller hand-to-mouth poaching from locals for bushmeat is as big a problem. When a family has nothing and face starvation, they will resort to killing whatever they can, and who can blame them? So we need to address community engagement and livelihoods as well.”
Fogle, who has two children, said he feared that his grandchildren would see wild animals only in zoos, safari parks or reserves as natural habitats come under pressure from factory farming and human expansion.
“I fear that the idea of truly ‘wild’ animals may be lost. As it is, only 4 per cent of mammal biomass is wild: 96 per cent is human and the livestock to feed us.
“Wild animals may still roam the plains of Africa but from behind huge fences where they can be effectively protected. As a UN Environment patron of wilderness, and father, this is of course a tragedy I’m going to fight against with all my heart and influence.”
He added: “I encourage everyone to learn more and find out how to use our sphere of influence to stop this trade.”
The UN campaign Wild for Life, launched in 2016, aims to halt the trade by raising awareness and toughening up laws on threats to biodiversity.
“The conference gives us the opportunity to fit all those wheels and cogs together, to hear from each unique expert in their field and try and come up with effective solutions,” Fogle said.
“The conference may be thousands of miles from the heart of the problem but it is a vital gathering of people who can begin to target the problem before it’s too late.”