Being the Prime Minister’s Anti-corruption Champion Is a bit weird, frankly. It’s not just that no-one knows what to call you (Tsar? Champion? Champ? Answers on a postcard please…..) but also that the subject is so unbelievably broad. If you’ve been watching the BBC’s TV series McMafia, you’ll know that corruption goes a lot wider than a foreign official who asks for a bribe when you’re abroad on business or holiday.
The downside of London being the biggest and best financial centre on the planet is that drug smugglers, gun runners, modern slavers and kleptocrats all want to launder their ill-gotten gains through banks and investment firms based in the City. And, often, to stash the newly-cleaned cash in Britain by buying posh flats in London or even Bristol too.
Some of the most organised criminals, it turns out, aren’t smuggling drugs, guns or people. They’re moving animals, or bits of them, instead. Whether it’s elephant ivory, rhino horn, bits of dead tiger or (rather strangely) pangolin scales, it turns out there’s a huge illegal wildlife trade that most of us would never see.
The impact on wild animals, plus a few endangered plants and trees, is horrific. In the past ten years, the number of wild elephants has declined by a third and around 20,000 are killed each year for their tusks.
That’s why there’s going to be a big international summit about how to fight the problem, which we’re hosting here in the UK this autumn. And why, a couple of weeks ago, I took part in a preparation event that brought together experts from across the world to discuss how best to stamp it out.
It was all held in very smart, Foreign Office-ish surroundings. But the subject was deadly serious.
The good news is that more and more countries have realised that protecting spectacular scenery, wildlife and biodiversity is a key part of their future. Whether it’s tourists coming to watch animals on safari, sustainable farming which doesn’t degrade rare wild habitats, or even controlled hunting, they’re realising that wildlife crime is still criminal, and no-one can afford to turn a blind eye to it.
We can help here in the UK too. The new Ivory Bill is going through Parliament at the moment, for example, and will make elephant poaching far less attractive because no-one will want to buy the tusks.
It’s not just us either. China’s ivory ban is far more important than ours, because they were always a far bigger market than we Brits had ever been.
Our foreign aid money helps as well, by training and equipping anti-poaching game wardens in National Parks which host some of the world’s rarest animals. And funding investigators who spot, catch and prosecute corrupt Government officials and border guards who earn cash for turning a blind eye to smuggling.
So next time we watch David Attenborough in a BBC TV nature programme that’s probably made right here in Bristol, let’s remember the corrupt and illegal wildlife trade could wipe it all away unless we’re willing to fight back. And even though Britain’s countryside may be relatively tame these days, we can lead the world in protecting wild places even so.