It’s Past Time to End Wildlife Crime

Achim Steiner, UN Environment Programme Executive Director

The headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) sits on the leafy outskirts of Nairobi, UNEP’s home for the last 44 years. Our host country, Kenya, has so much to offer a visitor, but is probably best known globally for its famous wildlife. Every year, millions of tourists flock to see the elephants, lions and rhinos that roam its forests and savannahs. But though it may not be hard to spot a herd of elephants in Amboseli National Park, it can be difficult to see the undercurrent of destruction the country has endured from the illegal trade in wildlife.

This shameful trade is not solely a Kenyan problem, nor is it confined to the animals we most often hear about. Thousands of species are threatened across the globe, including pangolins, helmeted hornbills, sea turtles and tree species such as rosewood. The statistics are very worrying. Between 2010 and 2012, 100,000 elephants were killed for their ivory in Africa.

A pangolin searches for food

Pangolins — scaly anteaters — are the most illegally trafficked mammal in the world, with an estimated one million killed for their meat and scales over the last decade. Great apes are already locally extinct in several African nations. Sadly, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Wildlife crime does far more than endanger flora and fauna. It robs countries of their natural heritage and strips communities of livelihoods. This trade, worth hundreds of billions of dollars each year, profits international criminal networks and fuels insecurity. There can be no doubt that putting a halt to the trade is an integral part of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as it threatens countries’ biodiversity, economies and security.

The United Nations system, its partners and governments have been taking action. The UN General Assembly has taken the issue on board, for the first time last year passing a resolution to tackle the illegal trade in wildlife. Individual countries have also taken action, such as our host nation. Kenya has introduced tougher penalties for poachers and smugglers, and earlier this month carried out the largest ivory burn in history — putting over 100 tonnes of poached tusks to the torch, and beyond commercial use.

But stopping the trade will require more than governments, international agencies and conservation groups. Each of us must do what we can. This is why the United Nations is today launching its #Wildforlife campaign at the second United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi in front of environment ministers, civil society groups and business leaders from over 170 countries.

The campaign aims to mobilize millions of people to make commitments and take action to end the illegal trade. It asks participants to find their kindred species and use their own spheres of influence to end the illegal trade. That can mean shopping carefully to avoid illegally sourced products, not keeping pets that have been illegally taken from the wild, and supporting conservation initiatives.

As part of the campaign, Brazilian model Gisele Bündchen is fighting for sea turtles, four-time African Footballer of the Year Yaya Touré for elephants and actor Ian Somerhalder for pangolins. These UNEP Goodwill Ambassadors are being joined by major celebrities from China, India, Indonesia and Viet Nam, all of whom are calling for citizen support to end the demand that is driving the illegal trade.

Politicians, celebrities and business leaders will also be making pledges during UNEA-2 and in the run-up to World Environment Day (WED), which is themed “Go Wild For Life”. Angola, the global host of WED, will be making significant pledges to tackle the illegal ivory trade on this day.

I will leave my post at UNEP and my Kenyan home of the past 10 years in only a few weeks. But I will continue to campaign against the illegal trade in wildlife in my future work. Every individual action counts toward change. I know that I can make a difference, and I know that you can too.

Join the campaign by visiting www.wildfor.life and using the #Wildforlife hashtag on Twitter to share your kindred animal and pledge.