Every threatened species of wildlife can count on the friendship of a member of the British royal family. There are few causes that royals can espouse without risking political controversy, but wildlife conservation is seen as one. This may be why they are ready to speak out for any newt, butterfly, or other creature facing the risk of extinction. Prominent among them is Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, who is an active campaigner for the greatest of them all, the African elephant, and last week made a strong appeal for a total ban by Britain on trade in ivory. As Cites (the 180-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) prepared to meet this week in Johannesburg, the prince said in a speech in London: ‘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…. 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.’
That might sound uncontroversial when African elephants are dying in unprecedented numbers, killed by ivory poachers at a rate of one every 15 minutes, but it isn’t completely so. On the one hand, it strikes against the insistence of some southern African countries with still healthy elephant populations that they need tusk sales to finance their war against poachers. Also, by appearing to demand an end to trade in any kind of ivory artefacts, however old, the prince is seen as criticising the British government’s plan to allow trading to continue in ivory antiques made before 1947. I can’t imagine what is so special about 1947, but I support the view of the environment secretary Andrea Leadsom, my MP in South Northamptonshire, that it would be ridiculous to ban the sale of ivory objects that have been created by the ancient Greeks and Romans.