In the world of elephants, it’s not often that you see conservationists celebrating. President Xi Jinping of China’s announcement on Friday last week that China will join the USA in enacting near total bans on domestic ivory trade is… I think… worth cracking the bubbly over. We don’t entirely know the detail yet, and there is no timeline, other than what was in the White House’s statement, which includes agreement between China and the USA to work together in “joint training, technical exchanges, information sharing and public education”. But this could be a winning combination.
It will of course take some time to see the effects of these Presidents’ commitments, but this is definitely a big step in the right direction and with President Xi Jinping publicly declaring his support, surely this should make it a priority for Chinese policy. This is most significant because China is the world’s largest consumer country for ivory, representing about 70% of the trade, with the USA coming in second. With these two Presidents clearly stating their position that ivory trade will not be tolerated, this sets a precedent that other countries can now follow. Other south east Asian countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand, also play key roles in the illegal trade, either as consumers or transit countries for illegal ivory.
In the last year or so we’ve seen several big players in the ivory trade undertake ivory stockpile crushings (the governments of the Philippines, Hong Kong, the US and China being a few). While this doesn’t really do anything to stop the trade, it does send a strong message that these governments are committed to ending the bloody illegal ivory trade.
Is the world turning a corner when it comes to ivory trade? Is the whirlwind of awareness raising starting to cut through in key consumer and transit countries for ivory? And most importantly, how long will it take for this to make a difference for elephants? Personally, I won’t be really celebrating until we start to see real population trends for elephants in the wild start to improve, and that’s certainly not happening yet. It was only a very short time ago that both Mozambique and Tanzania reported that at least half of their elephant populations have been poached in the last 5 years. Today, I feel cautiously optimistic, but we do need to keep the momentum up.
As I’m about to fly to Singapore and Melbourne for a week of talks on elephants, I’ve been investigating what the Singapore and Australian governments are doing to stop illegal ivory trade. In May this year, Singapore Customs seized their biggest illegal haul in over a decade, including $6 million worth of ivory. But we have yet to see any significant government ivory-related statements from either Singapore or Australia. When I met with Singaporean authorities last year to discuss this issue, I was informed that the Lion City would be crushing its official ivory stockpile shortly, but I haven’t heard anything since. In addition, with the strong influence that both southern hemisphere powerhouses have over other countries in Asia, particularly those that are struggling to get on top of this problem, I think both countries could do more to help this problem by exerting their influence in the region. It’d be great to see support from the governments of Australia and Singapore for countries like the Philippines and Thailand, to help them in the fight against illegal wildlife trade.
We know from the latest CITES report that the level of poaching of elephants is still unsustainable (and has been since 2008) – see the graph below. Anything above the red line is unsustainable (measured against natural population growth rates).
So elephants are far from being out of the woods. However, in addition to last Friday’s announcement from the White House, what also gives me some hope is that Wild Aid is starting to demonstrate some significant results from their Public Service Announcements in China, featuring the likes of David Beckham, Prince William and Chinese basketball player, Yao Ming, for both ivory and rhino horn. Wild Aid’s assessments suggest that awareness of this issue in China is improving (comparing 2012 to 2014), with a 51% increase in people surveyed realising that poaching is a problem and 90% of those who had seen the PSAs saying they would not buy ivory as a result. Read the report here.
Around the world on Sunday 4th October, hundreds of thousands of elephant- and rhino-lovers will congregate at the March For Elephants and Rhinos in 130+ cities. I’ll be marching and speaking at the Melbourne one, which has over 500 people coming. Melbourne residents can sign up to the march on Facebook. Anyone can sign the petition put together by the March organisers to encourage the Australian government to go further – click here to sign.
For those who want to learn more about the illegal ivory trade, please also come to watch the ‘Let Elephants Be Elephants‘ film and hear the latest from me on elephants the day before in Melbourne (this Saturday at 11am). You can RSVP here (where there are also full details of time and venue on Saturday). Singaporeans can join my talk at the Botanical Gardens this Friday at 4pm (full details here). It’s never been so important to keep the momentum up and show the world that we care about elephants and rhinos and will not stand by while they perish on our watch. Let’s all stand together and encourage all governments to follow the lead of China and the USA and commit to ending the illegal ivory trade!
I’ve always wanted to check out the Philippines, and living in Asia for the last couple of years finally afforded us the opportunity to do a bit of exploring. Ever heard of Palawan? It’s a series of islands to the west of the main Philippines islands, quite off the beaten track and home of the famous Underground River, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is considered to be the world’s longest underground river. Conde Naste magazine recently awarded Palawan the best island award as part of their 2014 Travel Awards – and here’s why.
Having packed up our house and put all our possessions in storage in Singapore, Andy, the boys and I headed for Manila for three days of Let Elephants Be Elephants events with my LEBE co-founder, Nadya Hutagalung, organised by our fantastic Philippines team, Ian Angelo King and Joey Mead. More on the Philippines launch of LEBE in a future blog, but for now let me take you to Palawan, Asia’s ultimate, undiscovered adventure and ecotourism destination.
Travelling with two kids under the age of 5 is sometimes a challenge, but the thing about the Philippines is that the locals adore kids – and that really helps. The warmth and friendliness of the people we met, from complete strangers to the lovely people we stayed with, was one of the most memorable parts of the stay. Okay so there were extremes – I had my wallet stolen in Manila, while holding the hands of two small kids (pick-pocketed right out of my bag), and we did have a bad experience with the owner of one place we stayed, but the generosity of others just astounded us. Palawan feels a bit like Africa in that way; you never know what’s going to happen, but when you go with the flow, magic sometimes happens.
Thanks to the generosity of some folks we met in Manila at the LEBE Land Rover event, we ended up at a little piece of paradise called Lagen Island. A private island looked after by a lovely team of locals, overseen by our impressive guide Bilog, the place had its own luxury two bedroom, two bathroom villa, made largely of bamboo, and even a resident wild Oriental Pied hornbill, we felt like we’d pretty much landed in heaven. We bought fish and lobsters and squid from the local fishermen, cooked on the coals by Bilog and team, and ate like kings in front of a big camp fire right on the beach at night. Surrounded by shallow, warm water and its own sandy beach, it was the perfect place for us and two little boys to rest up.
The scenery in the El Nido area is something else. Think islands with gorgeous, soft sand beaches, towering limestone cliffs, fully vegetated forests and swaying palm trees. What struck us about the whole of Palawan was how undeveloped the place was – in a very good way. Most of the island still has intact forests and there’s not a high rise in sight, even in the main town of Puerto Princesa. We hope it stays that way. Electricity on Lagen Island is powered by generator and there’s no refrigeration, which means going by boat into town every few days to buy ice for the cooler boxes, a good excuse to enjoy that breath taking scenery again.
The famed Puerto Princesa Underground River was worth a visit for the impressive stalactites and the sheer adventure of being in the dark on a little boat while bats and swallows fly past your head. Solo, now almost 5, thought it was a grand adventure. Although bear in mind it’s a bit of a mission to get there, two hours on winding roads from Puerto Princesa, and then a boat ride across the ocean to the point where you actually enter the cave.
It’s the sunsets and the peace that will stay in our memories the most. The sense of space, the huge vibrant skies and the warm waters with incredibly tame fish that you can snorkel right up to without them swimming away is really a recipe for a great escape. You do have to keep your wits about you with the kids (life jackets, mosquito repellent, eyes in the back of your head!) but for adventurous families or couples I can’t recommend this place highly enough. A huge thanks to Vivien, Ed & Bilog for taking such good care of us. Lagen Island’s gorgeous private villa can be booked here.
While in Puerto Princesa, which is a 4 hour drive from El Nido, we stayed at the Legend Hotel and met the owners, Antonia and Wyden, who happened to be there at the time and were just the most hospitable people ever. The rooms were of a good standard for the very reasonable price, clean and very big, and more than did the trick for us, plus the breakfast spread was ample for our family. The staff went out of their way to meet all our needs, which really helps when traveling with kids.
Travelling with an almost one year old, Shep, especially one with very red hair and incredibly white skin, was an experience in itself. Everywhere we went, locals described him as a ‘talking doll’, and he really got the celebrity treatment. We would have found it a lot more challenging traveling there if we hadn’t had our wonderful Philippino nanny, Julie with us the whole time. Julie wasn’t just our nanny while there – she was translator, guide and body guard for Shep from all the ladies who wanted to hold him as he literally stopped traffic!
All in all, other than the incredible islands, the warmth of the Philippino people was one of the things we loved the most about travelling there. At the moment, El Nido doesn’t even have an ATM, so it’s really a tourism hotspot waiting to happen. Our hope is that as El Nido opens up to the world, it develops in a way that keeps intact its reefs, forests and islands, because something this magnificent really is worth saving.