This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
(Transcript of the speech, exactly as it was delivered)
Professor Hughes, Madam Dao Linyin, ladies and gentlemen, thank you.
It is a pleasure to be here, at the end of my first visit to China.
I have formed many lasting and positive impressions of the people I have met, of China’s extraordinary economic dynamism, its ancient culture, and its remarkable natural heritage.
It has been an honour to visit the Botanic Gardens I first heard about from my grandfather, to experience the diversity of Yunnan Province, crossed by three of Asia’s mightiest rivers, and to visit Elephant Valley.
Many a book has been written about the ‘English Garden’. Yet as much as half of the plants we think of as British were introduced from China in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Truly, our histories are intertwined: nature transcends geography and is a bridge between us.
Here in Yunnan, it is easy to see why men and women have found inspiration in nature throughout the ages. Chinese artists and writers have made a vast contribution, over hundreds of years, to the ideal of man’s kinship with nature and all living creatures.
But protecting our environment is not just an ideal. As the poet Wang Taiyue wrote over a century ago, “if humans take all there is, if they show no restraint, their force is enough to wear out both Heaven and Earth”.
We have to conserve our planet – to provide security and prosperity for all people, and indeed to sustain humanity.
This creates challenges for all of us.
All countries experience the tension between the need to develop resources for the good of all, and the responsibility to preserve nature – and I understand very well that this is a difficult balance.
Too often in the past this has been presented as a choice between benefiting mankind or protecting nature.
But in fact, the two cannot be separated. Long-term economic stability requires sustainable development and green growth – what Chinese leaders have termed ‘eco-civilisation’.
There is much we can learn from each other across continents. The challenges the Dai villagers I met today told me about, for example, are very similar to those faced by people living among elephants in rural Africa.
And the insurance system you have created here, to protect livelihoods when crops are damaged, may well hold valuable lessons for other countries.
But as well as these important local issues, we face global challenges that recognise no borders: from pollution and climate change to the main subject of my speech today, the illegal trade in wildlife.
Because, of course, the greatest threat to elephants worldwide today is not local farmers protecting their livelihoods, it is ruthless and organised poaching and trafficking.
It is appalling that elephants – and many others – may be extinct in the wild in our lifetimes, and that we seem to be hurtling towards that tragic outcome. The extinction of animals such as elephants, rhinos and pangolins would be an immeasurable loss to the whole of humanity.
The illegal wildlife trade is therefore our common enemy. It is a vicious form of criminality: plundering the natural resources of poorer countries, taking lives, hindering development and spreading corruption. It erodes the rule of law, fuels conflict, and may even fund terrorism.
Traffickers think nothing of violating laws and sovereignty anywhere they can to exploit a loophole or turn a profit. And international cooperation is our strongest defence against them.
With that in mind, we must join forces on three critical battlegrounds:
First, to help countries protect their vulnerable species, for example through the Elephant Protection Initiative.
I commend China for its contribution to the protection of wildlife in Africa as a state party to CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. I also warmly welcome China’s participation in the London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade a year ago, and I look forward to the follow-on conference in Botswana.
There is however so much more to do.
The second battleground is the need to crack down on the illegal trade itself. United for Wildlife has set up a taskforce of experts and representatives of the transport industry to recommend ways to prevent criminals smuggling wildlife by air, sea or land, since all countries are vulnerable to this abuse of legitimate trade networks.
And thirdly, a powerful blow we can strike against traffickers is to reduce the demand for their products. Demand provides traffickers with their incentive. It fuels their greed, and generates their vast profits.
The steps that China has already taken to counter this pernicious trade are welcome. They include last week’s announcement to tighten regulations governing the legal trade, to help ensure it cannot be used as a front to launder illegal products.
China’s decision to ban shark fin, bird nests and wild animal products at official dinners has been warmly received around the world for the impact it has had on consumption.
The President, whom I met during my visit, told me of the steps China is taking and the intention to do more. I welcome that.
China can be a global leader in the fight against the illegal wildlife trade. I greatly hope that the United Kingdom and China can partner with one another in this endeavour.
If I may add one final, heartfelt message, it is that, ultimately, ending demand for ivory is down to citizens across the world. No tradition or fashion is worth the extinction of an entire species, and no criminal gang should be allowed to destroy any part of nature.
I am sure that there are millions of people who share this conviction. If we can unite on this principle across cultures and continents, ours can be the generation that chooses to maintain the beauty of nature in the wild; that changes global attitudes towards ivory irrevocably; and that stands between endangered species and extinction.
This afternoon I planted a tree in these botanic gardens, in the shelter of a Wang Tian tree my grandfather planted 29 years ago.
When we plant a tree we do so knowing that although it will take years to grow, it will yield great benefits for future generations.
The same is true of the decisions we make today to protect wildlife. As I believe you say in China, “one generation plants the trees in whose shade another generation rests.