Published 22 September 2016

We have the opportunity to end, once and for all, the mixed messages we have sent for too long about the value and desirability of wildlife products

The Duke of Cambridge

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.

I am delighted we are joined by those of you in Tokyo and Johannesburg as we prepare for a pivotal moment in the fight against illegal wildlife trade. I am particularly grateful to TUSK for providing this unique platform, and to ISPS Handa Foundation and Tusk’s other sponsors for making such an ambitious occasion possible. To John Scanlon and Dr Handa, thank you for sharing your thoughts on an issue I particularly feel passionate about.

Today’s event, on the eve of the CITES conference in Johannesburg, is timely and its global nature reflects the global scale of this challenge. Earlier this month the Great Elephant Census was published. And it confirmed what many of us have feared for some time – one of our planet's most treasured species is on course for extinction at the hands of poachers and traffickers.

When I was born, there were 1 million elephants roaming Africa. By the time my daughter Charlotte was born last year, the numbers of savannah elephants had crashed to just 350,000. And at the current pace of illegal poaching, when Charlotte turns 25 the African elephant will be gone from the wild. And the risk is not just to elephants. Today is World Rhino Day. A species that, due to demand for its horn, is being killed at a rate of nearly three animals a day. Rhinos face extinction in our lifetimes as we struggle to correct lies about the supposed benefits of using its horn as a drug. However, this crisis is not just about animals – this crisis is also about people. It is some of the world's poorest people who will suffer when their natural resources are stripped from them illegally and brutally. It is families in the world's most vulnerable regions who suffer when two rangers are killed every week on the frontline of this fight. It is fragile democratic systems in many nations that are at risk from the scourge of violence and corruption that the illegal wildlife trade fuels. Ladies and gentlemen, I am not prepared to be part of a generation that lets these iconic species disappear from the wild.

I am not prepared to explain to our children why we lost this battle when we had the tools to win it – and I know that none of you in Tokyo, Johannesburg or here in London want this either. I fear we will not know what we have lost until it has gone. But there is hope – we can do something. There is huge momentum building from governments, businesses, conservationists, and the public to take the steps required to stop the killing.

Three and a half years ago I spoke on the eve of the last CITES conference and I urged Parties to redouble their efforts to tackle illegal wildlife trade.

As we stand on the eve of another CITES gathering there is much to celebrate: - The London Conference in 2014, which showed that Governments were taking this seriously; - The Elephant Protection Initiative, now with 14 member countries; - China and America's leadership when last year they were the first to announce domestic bans on ivory trade; - the recovery in Giant Panda numbers in China - one example of how concerted action can deliver results; - The Transportation industry led by Lord Hague acting with resolve through the Buckingham Palace Declaration to tackle their role in this issue; - And last week, the overwhelming vote at the IUCN World Conservation Congress calling on all countries to close their domestic ivory markets. These are all significant steps, but progress is fragile and we cannot be complacent. As leaders gather for CITES, and later at the third Illegal Wildlife Trade conference in Vietnam in November which I will be attending, we have the chance to seize a huge opportunity.

We have the opportunity to end, once and for all, the mixed messages we have sent for too long about the value and desirability of wildlife products. We have the chance to say that ivory is a symbol of destruction, not of luxury and not something that anyone needs to buy or sell. We have the chance to say that rhino horn does not cure anything and does not need a legal market. Now is the chance to send an unambiguous message to the world that it is no longer acceptable to buy and sell ivory, rhino horn or other illegal wildlife products.

Indeed I would challenge anyone who knows the truth of how these wildlife products are obtained, to justify desiring them. Materialistic greed cannot be allowed to win against our moral duty to protect threatened species and vulnerable communities. This is not just an issue for people on the other side of the world – the British Government announced yesterday that it is looking closely at this issue in respect of our own domestic trade. Wherever we are in the world, we must all play our part. The opportunity that the CITES conference presents to halt the illegal wildlife trade will not come round again for another three years.

I sincerely hope that the Parties are able to unite around an unmistakable message to the world about the crisis in which we find ourselves – in my personal opinion, a tightening and not a loosening of the rules around the international trade in ivory and rhino horn. Mixed messages about the viability of trade in elephant or rhino parts would surely serve only to confuse wouldbe consumers at this crucial time. We cannot undo the mistakes of the past. But we can and must take moral responsibility for the decisions we make today.

Please let us not lose momentum or focus. If we are to succeed, we must do more; we must do it faster; and we must do it better. But most importantly, we must do it together. Thank you.