Leading the charge against illegal wildlife trade

2018 must be the year we mark the beginning of the end of the illegal wildlife trade.

Some might ask why this matters more than other global issues. It does not. There is much still to be done on poverty alleviation, ensuring education for all, promoting gender equality or addressing climate change, for example, and I could write on all of this and more. But the Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) issue deserves attention in its own right, that's why we mark March 3 as World Wildlife Day.

Can you imagine a future where wild pangolins, sun bears and the Malayan tiger are no longer to be found in their natural habitat? In Malaysia, we have already seen the loss of the Sumatran rhino in the wild due to the loss of habitat and illegal poaching. Will they and other species simply become a curiosity at a zoo? What if your grandchild or great grandchild in years to come asks you why, what are you going to say? We did not care and we did nothing? That would be a poor response.

In my view this is a future we must avoid, just as we aspire to a future where every child has access to education, where wealth is more equitably shared, women are equally represented and paid, no one is hungry and where climate change has been arrested and our planet, the only home we have, is stable and peaceful and our people prosper. But in such a world we also value our natural world and the richness of its biodiversity and we see a value in how it enriches us in other ways. In that world IWT would not exist as we would know better.

We, as mankind, are the ultimate guardians of our planet and all its inhabitants, human and animal. This planet – our oceans, land and forests – has given us an abundance. It has put food in our stomachs and provided us with materials to build everything from our homes to our mobile phones. We have done well as a species but in all things there is a balance. Over exploitation and consumption can tip that balance. We are seeing it now. Extreme climatic conditions are causing drought, floods and cyclones. Plastic is choking our waterways and seas and getting into our food chain. All this risks our health and our societies. It also risks the loss of our amazing biodiversity. The IWT is part of this overexploitation challenge.

As I sit on my balcony and observe the astonishing wildlife around me, even in the urban setting of Kuala Lumpur, you can't help but appreciate the rich biodiversity of this beautiful country. I spot hurrying squirrels, cheeky macaques, my favourite owl, a kingfisher and a green lizard on the tree trunk.
In the jungles that form Peninsular Malaysia's central forest spine, tigers roam like kings; elsewhere Asian and pygmy elephants move through rainforest leaving behind a trail; orangutans and proboscis monkeys break the dawn looking for food; pangolins and tortoises forage through thick undergrowth; magnificent turtles come ashore to lay their eggs and more. This is the beautiful world that is at risk, not only in Malaysia but across the world's tropical belt. Today wild animals are being hunted down. Four decades ago, 1.3 million elephants roamed the earth. Now we are down to 415,000 African elephants. The same fate has befallen the Malayan tiger, a subspecies found only in Peninsular Malaysia and the south of Thailand – from numbers ranging in thousands in the 1950s, to fewer than 250. If we do nothing, there is a real danger that our great-grandchildren will grow up in a world without the Malayan tiger. Rhinos are certainly extinct in Peninsular Malaysia.

So, it is time to arrest this. Action is being taken. Malaysia wants to stop illegal poaching of its iconic wildlife population; and keen to tackle the illegal trade that transits through the country. And this is to be welcomed. Britain will support these efforts. This can happen nationally or at state level. We saw this when we took the Prince of Wales to Royal Belum State Park in Perak last November. It was wonderful to see the patronage of the Sultan of Perak for the work in Belum. We have also heard of the exemplary work being done in Sabah. There is hope when we have collective purpose. Things can be done and the tide can be turned.

Here's a fact: some 70% of the ivory from elephants brutally killed for their tusks goes to China, where small illicit businesses convert these tusks into ornamental products. Malaysia has been used as a transit country for this illegal trade. But from Dec 31, 2017 China banned the domestic sale of ivory. We have also seen a laudable increase in illegal ivory seizures by the Malaysian authorities. These actions are all part of the change we need to see and encourage. But while much will depend on enforcement, we must also work on attitudes and understanding at the consumer end of the market. It is not just about tackling supply. Like all illicit goods, we have to convince people that buying such goods is wrong. It is not just about having a prized possession or believing a particular animal body part has aphrodisiac properties, but understanding the true cost or the lie so that the customer chooses to turn away and so stop the demand.

So Britain is taking a global lead on this agenda as we have done on Climate Change and now also the right to education for Women and Girls in line with our SDG commitments. We will seek to encourage new forms of consensus and collaboration to tackle IWT. Our aim is to make 2018 the year where we put a marker down to defeat it. In 2018, the UK government will act on plans for a British ban on domestic ivory sales. This month, we are partnering the Royal Malaysian Customs and Perhilitan in organising and hosting an IWT workshop in Kuala Lumpur – this was a commitment made at Belum in the presence of the Prince of Wales and the Sultan of Perak. In October the UK will host an international conference in London on how to curb IWT globally. And we will do more with partners and friends like Malaysia.

This illegal trade, and the vile indiscriminate poaching at the heart of it, is part of the convoluted syndicate of corruption, money laundering, trafficking and gun-smuggling that criminals feed off, and needs to be seen as such. With more effective determination and cross-border enforcement and cooperation, I have no doubt we can curtail the IWT and ensure that future generations share this planet with elephants and tigers till the end of time.

Vicki Treadell is the British High Commissioner to Malaysia.