The first step: UN Environmental Assembly commits to eradicating wildlife crime
I was skeptical going into the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA) meeting, held June 23-27, 2014 in Nairobi, Kenya.
Sure, I knew “Illegal Trade in Wildlife” was declared one of the top two priorities at the high-level ministerial segment...But would the conversations revolve more around charcoal exploitation and endangered “rosewood, African cherry and wild mahogany,” and neglect the animals?
I was pleasantly surprised.
It felt almost like being at a conference designed specifically to discuss animals.
I was proud when I was warmly welcomed at the conference by senior UN officials, showing their appreciation for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), who first brought the relevance of wildlife trafficking and the linkages with organized crime to the attention of governments years ago.
I got really excited when the Executive Director of UNEP, Achim Steiner himself, left no doubt, telling me how pleased he is to finally have the threats against wildlife and their habitats so prominently addressed at the highest level of world governance.
We both hope that this marks the start for the global community to change the world into a better place for animals and people.
The international community participated in the Assembly in record numbers, with high-level delegations from 160 UN Member and Observer States and stakeholders from multiple sectors present. The 120 Ministers or their alternates declared poaching and illicit wildlife trade to be a serious crime, which can no longer be tolerated and needs to be addressed at the highest level.
As one of only two delegates representing stakeholder groups, I was invited to address the conference of ministers.
I stressed that conservation and sustainable development policies must be guided by ecological and biological sustainability, the ethical treatment of wildlife and the precautionary principle.
Precaution means if you don’t have enough scientific evidence to support a policy, proceed on the side of caution to reduce or alleviate threats of harm to the wellbeing of humans, animals or the environment pending further scientific investigation.
It is refreshing to see more government officials speaking out not only for better wildlife conservation, but also about the ethical side involved. The Kenyan Ambassador to UNEP brought it to a point when he said last week that seeing an elephant killed and violently stripped of his tusks is a sign of inhumanity and cruelty.
It helped that the conference took place in Nairobi: Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who closed with the words “[we are] poised for the crucial next stage of human development,” on Saturday adopted a six-month-old lioness at the Kenya Wildlife Service’s animal orphanage.
He named the lioness “Tumaini,” the Kiswahili word for “hope.” His choice of a lioness orphan for this photo opportunity speaks volumes.
Losing wildlife comes not only to the detriment of wildlife species, but also to the detriment of humans. Poaching and illicit wildlife trade has major economic, social and environmental impacts: It leads to violations of human and environmental rights, contributes to damaging ecosystems and rural livelihoods, undermines good governance, accountability and the rule of law, threatens national security and devastates local communities and wildlife-based business.
Most importantly, it often comes with tremendous cruelty.
I have no illusions that it still will take lots and lots of talks until the world buys into this holistic approach.
However, the vast majority of delegates expressed their commitment to combating and eradicating wildlife crime effectively, particularly driving towards good compliance with international agreements and laws and prioritizing effective enforcement measures.
And slowly but steadily more and more people are realizing that animals are sentient and social beings who do not deserve to suffer such fates.
Many delegates referred to the birth of UNEA as a historic breakthrough for the global community’s commitment to reach ecological sustainability and a human coexistence in harmony with nature.
But to make this real, UNEA has to prove not to be another “talk-shop” conference. All governments have to turn their stated commitments into clear, far-reaching, effective action right away.
Only then will we be able to look back proudly at this first meeting of the United Nations Environmental Assembly as a truly historic moment to make this world a better place for animals and people.
Learn more about IFAW’s policy and legislative efforts to protect animals; visit our political advocacy page.