Empowering youth on World Elephant Day to secure wildlife’s future

This piece was co-authored by John Scanlon, Secretary General, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)

“The future is in your hands.”

This is an oft-repeated statement in remarks about young people meant to inspire them.

But frankly, it can also be read as a copout, a statement that impliedly abdicates responsibility from our generation, as in “we’ve done all we can—it’s up to them now…”

We do not subscribe to this view.

Since youth will be tasked with finding solutions to challenges, many of which our generation has not yet been able to solve, we have to ask ourselves:

Are we providing them with the intellectual and analytical tools, incentives and motivation to tackle these issues going forward?

Are we providing youth with opportunities to engage with one another and together forge an inspired path to a better world?

The recent publication of the World Youth Report by the United Nations outlines many of the challenges faced by young people today; yet rather than pervasive disenfranchisement, we are seeing growing numbers of young people self-mobilizing to create their own opportunities.

As people dedicated to wildlife conservation—we are eager to encourage that entrepreneurial spirit. We can help open doors and provide access to expertise, show them how policy gets developed, science is performed and respected, diplomacy is achieved and sustained, and why engaging stakeholders matters.

Against this background, and in the lead up to the biggest ever meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES), the CITES CoP17 – or the World Wildlife Conference, the inaugural Youth Forum for People and Wildlife will take place, also in Johannesburg, South Africa.

READ: Don’t let wildlife disappear—prepping for CITES this September

Made possible by the generous support from Disney Conservation Fund, together with the Jane Goodall Institute, the CITES Secretariat, the South African Government Department of Environment Affairs and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the forum will bring together 34 committed young leaders (aged 18-25) from 25 countries around the world to work together on issues including animal welfare, wildlife conservation, wildlife trade and sustainable community development. And this exciting initiative extends well beyond these 34 leaders, with more than 1,000 young people having already enrolled in the online forum.

These young people have volunteered their time and worked in a host of different environments. As researchers, rangers, artists, wildlife rescuers and rehabilitators, they can share experiences and grow their knowledge and understanding together and help us all continue our collective learning.

They can also express themselves in shaping demand reduction strategies to curb illegal wildlife trade for the future, and debate issues around the ecological sustainable use of wildlife and how one can ensure local benefits. ‘Eradicating poverty and achieving sustainable development is part of today’s theme for UN International Youth Day. We are confident that some of the youth will dedicate their lives to the conservation of wildlife which is such a great cause, yet our bigger hope is that all the youth will be great ambassadors for wildlife conservation— this is the key to our future survival: people, animals and plants.

It is why this Forum is so important. This is further exemplified by the championing of the first ever document on empowering the next generation at CITES CoP17, namely on CITES and youth engagement cosponsored by South Africa and the United States, as is the commitment by South Africa to establish a Youth and Conservation Programme as a lasting legacy of the hosting of CITES CoP17.

Coincidentally, today is also World Elephant Day.

We are seeing African elephant mortality surpassing the birth rate as a result of shrinking habitat, climate change and the illegal ivory trade, which has seen poaching of these majestic animals for their tusks at a rate of tens of thousands elephants per year.

For the first time, CITES will consider a dedicated resolution on corruption and wildlife crime as well as addressing the work of the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime. CITES Parties will explore how to make better use of modern forensics and specialized investigation techniques and enhanced cross border cooperation in combating illegal ivory trade, as well as for other specimens.

CITES will also consider a powerful set of proposals concerning well-targeted demand reduction strategies, including for illegally traded ivory, and how to better engage with local communities to ensure they can live in harmony with the elephants and other wildlife that surrounds them.

Our generation has not yet succeeded in securing the future of elephants. Meeting this challenge will now be shared with the next generation. We will be stronger together!

The time to act is now. And to succeed we must fully harness the innovation and energy of youth, and combine it with the wisdom that comes with experience, if we are to make the change we need to happen.

We must further empower young people, so they can stand up together with us and say, as we said on this year’s World Wildlife Day: “The future of wildlife is in our hands!”

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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
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Beth Allgood, Country Director, United States
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Dr. Joseph Okori
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