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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

Illegal wildlife trade an 'industrial scale pillage' says conservationist 

Dominic Jermey, a former British ambassador to the UAE, believes the trade needs to be viewed as seriously as terrorist groups 

Dominic Jermey says that rangers should be better paid due to the dangerous nature of their jobs. ZSL
Dominic Jermey says that rangers should be better paid due to the dangerous nature of their jobs. ZSL

A leading animal conservationist has called for wildlife poaching to be treated as a global challenge, just as the international community collaborates on sanctions on Iran and halting funds going to extremist groups. Dominic Jermey, Director-General of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), said the “industrial scale pillage” that is the wildlife trade continues unabated and requires a collective, multi-faceted clamp down.

“As an international community we are gripping money laundering, sanctions on Iran, terrorist financing and arms trading. In the pecking order (the illegal wildlife trade) is way behind. It is criminality on pretty much the same scale” Mr Jermey, who previously served as the UK’s ambassador to the UAE from 2010 to 2014 and also to Afghanistan, told The National.

“The big prize is a strategic push by governments, galvanising communities, civil society, companies to grip this in the same way,” he added. Estimates suggest the trade is worth some $23 billion a year and is seemingly on the increase. Mr Jermey added that the “Living Planet Index” indicator, developed by ZSL, has shown a staggering 58 percent decline in wildlife populations globally since 1970. While a number of factors were to blame, such as climate change, there was no doubt the illegal wildlife trade was a main cause. “I’ve looked at the finances, this is an industrial scale harvesting of wildlife in a completely unstainable way,” he said.

Mr Jermey was speaking ahead of the UK-hosted Illegal Wildlife Conference on Thursday and Friday, which will bring together global leaders to help eradicate the illegal wildlife trade and protect the world’s most endangered species.

ZSL’s Director General laid out three key things he wanted to come out from the summit. One would be a clear commitment “underpinned by mechanisms” on how nation-states would clamp down on the demand and availability of illegally trafficked wildlife goods. Another is a collective effort by governments, regulators and banks to stop the financing of the trade. Finally, a consensus around using technology more effectively. The latter was cited by Mr Jermey as a particularly significant gamechanger recently – for good and bad.

“The use of the internet to sell illegally traded wildlife goods is prevalent and that is a core route to the market in consumer countries. Taking down those websites is very important – it requires subtlety to stay ahead of the dark web and also needs very effective algorithms,” he said. “For instance, the word ivory could refer to a paint colour or it could indeed be an illegally traded part of an elephant,” Mr Jermey said.

“Then there is the incredibly positive use of technology. For example, rangers with GPS-enabled tracking systems that allow their commanders to know their location but also to feed into a programme with real time data about where smugglers are,” he said. “Then there are camera traps that are able to distinguish between men with guns and antelopes, so that enforcement agencies can then be sent to the right place. It could also be using specially-developed gels to fingerprint pangolin scales to identify individual smugglers. Technology has an enormous role to pay,” he added.

Leading up to the conference, the trade in rhinos has come under particular scrutiny. “We have seen a dramatic increase in the slaughters of rhinos in the last couple of years. From what we can deduce at the transit routes, we are seeing an increase going through. This is exactly why the conference is important to clamp down on it,” said Mr Jermey.

Mr Jermey also applauded the work of the UAE and UK in clamping down on the illegal wildlife trade. He cited both giving at least 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Product to overseas development assistance, money which could be used not only for alternative livelihoods but also conservation. “It’s to the UK’s credit they are hosting this conference. There are not many countries achieving 0.7 per cent. The UAE has done some great in conservation and in development – the opportunity now is to bring those two objectives together to support sustainable livelihoods for communities dependent on wildlife, making poaching a less attractive option.

Mr Jermey took over at the helm of the ZSL in November 2017 but has long been an advocate for the protection of wildlife and preventing the illegal trade of animals. Nonetheless, he said his relatively new position had still changed his outlook. “I have a much deeper understanding of the impact of illegal wildlife trade on ordinary people. Actually getting about on patrol and meeting some of the communities directly impacted just brought home to me the human cost behind the numbers of wildlife being taken away,” he said.

“You’ve got women and men as rangers and customs officials trying to catch smugglers and stopping things getting out. These are people drawn from the local population quite often in the frontline doing a dangerous job. They are on the frontline, they are facing people who are pretty well armed, might be better paid. The message we send through this conference has to be an international one,” Mr Jermey added.