This past week, I joined Sara Walker, Senior Advisor on Wildlife Trafficking at the AZA, and over 3,000 other wildlife conservation enthusiasts in London for the 2018 International Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT). It seems less frequent these days, but sometimes leaders do what leaders are supposed to do. The London IWT Conference was one of these moments!
The British Prime Minister, several African and Asian Heads-of-State and first-ladies, His Royal Highness Prince William, the U.S. Attorney General, several Cabinet Ministers and Members of Parliament, and many public officials and NGO representatives spoke of the challenge and opportunity we face. They were inspiring and engaging. I’m leaving London feeling renewed, energetic and optimistic that we have reached a tipping point in our battle against Illegal Wildlife Trade. And I am proud that AZA and its members are positioned to contribute ownership, partnership, and leadership in this effort.
It was heartening to see our friends and colleagues at London Zoo and the Zoological Society of London playing a central role in this conference. ZSL sponsored an exciting “Community Voices” event, helping to ensure that representatives from local communities had a voice in this discussion. One of those voices was Jackson Kabuyaya Mbeke with the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center (GRACE), in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Jackson’s story is truly inspiring, even more so, because he gives credit to AZA zoos and AZA SAFE — Saving Animals From Extinction — for providing crucial support for their efforts!
There was far too much happening to capture in a short blog post, so I will share a few highlights and quotes:
For royal-fans, HRH Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, spoke twice: once in plenary, and once before the Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI) Consultative Group, of which AZA is a member. He said much of note, including, “I cannot look my children in the eye, and say we failed to protect wildlife.”
It is fair to say I have been critical of the Trump Administration for its lack of strongly supportive leadership on the environment, and particularly wildlife conservation. Well, let me say, unambiguously, that the plenary remarks by Attorney General Jeff Sessions were authentic, substantive, and inspiring! He is the highest-ranking U.S. Government official ever to address an international wildlife trafficking conference. He announced, among other items, recent wildlife trafficking prosecutions, upcoming placement of five new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agents in U.S. embassies, and a continued commitment to the interagency federal Wildlife Trafficking Taskforce. He also announced that he would personally host a wildlife trafficking roundtable discussion, October 26, and AZA has been invited to attend. He said, “... wildlife trafficking funnels billions of dollars to those who sow evil in our world and we need to make sure that the U.S. is neither market nor safe haven for these activities.”
Botswana’s former President, Ian Khama, said, “Nature is the planet’s most valuable asset. We have a responsibility to invest in nature.”
And addressing the EPI Consultative Group, Gabon’s President, Ali Bongo, said, “The world will be a lesser place if the rumble and the trumpet of the elephant is no more.”
President Bongo was speaking with the voice of nature, and as Henry David Thoreau told us, “The voice of nature is always encouraging.”
I’m encouraged! Encouraged that the world is awakening to this crisis. Encouraged to see so many African and Asian leaders taking center stage. Encouraged by the presence of community and youth voices. Encouraged that some of the efforts I helped nurture as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director are paying dividends, and aligning with the work of others. Encouraged that my country continues to provide strong leadership — thank you, Attorney General Sessions and all the talented U.S. Government officials who attended! And encouraged that the AZA community is playing a significant and strategic role, and positioning itself to do even more!
Quite a week!