Straight after David Cameron’s speech to the Party Conference in Manchester, I travelled to India, where I spoke at two events and met their Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh.
Climate change in India is already having a damaging effect on food production and has led to floods and droughts, killing thousands. Even small further temperature rises could have catastrophic effects. India itself recognises the need for action.
At a conference in Kerala, I re-stated our commitment to reducing emissions and called for a ‘partnership for environmental security’. But I warned against a form of ‘environmental colonialism’ which would deny developing countries growth. The challenge, but also the opportunity, is to pursue sustainable growth.
I then travelled to to Kaziranga National Park in Assam, in the north east of the country, and back to Delhi to address an event on international wildlife conservation hosted by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Wildlife Trust of India.
Kaziranga is a fabulous natural environment, home to elephants, deer, water buffalo and over two-thirds of the world's population of the Great One-horned Rhinoceros, amounting to only a few thousand. It also boasts the highest concentration of the seriously endangered Indian Tiger in the world.
Indian wildlife faces a range of threats, from climate change, pollution, development and the illegal trade in wildlife, which is an international problem. Across Africa, armed groups linked to civil wars are now profiting from the illegal ivory trade and using the proceeds of sales to fund their activities, turning the continent's dwindling elephant population into a new cash crop.
In fact, the illegal international wildlife trade is worth over £6 billion a year and is the third biggest trade after drugs trafficking and arms. IFAW has described this as the ‘greatest problem for the protection of elephants in Africa.’ Yesterday’s immoral trade was ‘blood diamonds’. Today’s is blood ivory.
This trade was fuelled recently when, despite the ban on trade in ivory that we introduced two decades ago, the Government failed to object to a sale of stockpiled ivory. Britain should be taking a lead and demanding that all elephant ivory – from whatever source – is prohibited for trade. We should be choking demand for ivory, not stoking it.
We need effective enforcement against the wildlife trade, and our dedicated border police force will help. But we also need social responsibility. The demand in China for traditional ‘medicines’ is fuelling the poaching of tigers and rhinos. This cannot go unchallenged. Our respect for cultural traditions in other countries simply cannot extend to those which threaten endangered species and are rooted in absurd yet damaging superstition.
We should have strong and consistent leadership, including from Britain, to raise the profile of these issues and lead the call for change. The Tibetan Conservation Awareness Campaign, launched by the Dalai Lama, shows what can be achieved. It implored citizens to give up using illegal animal products, resulting in the public incineration of dresses lined with tiger and leopard furs, and a collapse in demand.
But we cannot rely completely on regulation and enforcement to protect endangered species and habitats, even if they could all be realised internationally. We need to make it more profitable to save our valued species than for people to profit from their death. That means giving local people real financial incentives to help preserve biodiversity.
In India I met an ‘Ecotourism Society’ which has literally turned poachers into gamekeepers in Manas National Park, showing how the re-alignment of incentives can deliver real benefits for wildlife. The sums of money are relatively small – the incentive needed to encourage a local poacher into conservation was around $1 a day.
Similarly, we need new incentives to encourage conservation, for instance to create wildlife corridors to help species adapt to development and climate change, or help local communities invest in biodiversity when development takes place, through new mechanisms like conservation credits.
The rainforests of countries like Brazil could be protected through a new strategy of ‘avoided deforestation’, where a price is placed on the carbon locked in the forests and countries are allowed to trade credits in the international market, incentivising conservation and benefiting both wildlife and the climate. We would like to see this approach extended and an agreement on rainforest protection reached as part of the Copenhagen negotiations.
We need to enlist the power of the market to give every agent – from the local supplier to the global corporation – real financial incentives to conserve what is valuable. Of course, markets are only a means, not an end. Ultimately our collective determination to do more to save wildlife and habitats will come from an appreciation of both the beauty and innate value of nature, and the importance of biodiversity in sustaining the planet.
The last Conservative government took a strong stance on issues like the ivory trade and whaling. I want a modern Conservative government to pursue international conservation challenges with an even greater passion.