The world needs to show the same ambition as it has on climate change to protect global wildlife, Environment Secretary Michael Gove has said.
Speaking ahead of an international conference on tackling the illegal wildlife trade in London in October, Mr Gove said the loss of species was “a massive global problem” for both nature and humans.
He said illegal fishing, competition for resources, intensive farming and climate change were all eroding habitats.
And he warned: “Illegal wildlife trade is one of the biggest threats not just to biodiversity on this planet but to the stability and chance of progress in the developing world.
“Every day hundreds of special, precious, iconic species are slaughtered in pursuit of greed, and we need to take collective action.
“Countries in the developing world have said to Britain that we have a key role as a leader, a convener in bringing nations both where animals are facing devastating pressures and also bringing together countries where there is still a demand for this trade.
“It’s only by acting together we can safeguard natural life on this planet.”
The conference will look at species such as rhinos, elephants, pangolins and threatened trees exploited for timber, and will build momentum towards meetings in the next two years on protecting the world’s nature.
Mr Gove acknowledged there was much more to do to safeguard the UK’s wildlife, with more than half of species seeing declines in recent decades.
But he insisted the Government was taking steps in the new Agriculture Bill, which paves the way for paying farmers for “public goods” such as protecting wildlife, and in its 25-year environment plan to reverse the problem.
He also said ministers were also taking action to help on the international stage, such as legislation to curb the ivory trade.
“Just as we’ve got together to take on the challenge of climate change, we need to get together to take on the challenge of making sure we have our wildlife, flora and fauna protected and habitats enhanced,” he said.
“The world, collectively, has taken action in order to set ambitious goals to deal with climate change, and I think we need to show a similar level of ambition when it comes to making sure we safeguard wildlife and biodiversity.”
He promised new funding from the UK Government would be announced at the illegal wildlife trade conference, which is the fourth such event since 2014 and the largest so far.
Mr Gove was joined by MP Zac Goldsmith, who is playing a role as champion of the conference, to pose with rhino sculptures which have been painted by artists including the Chapman Brothers, Zhang Huan and Ronnie Wood.
The rhinos are part of a London-wide installation by wildlife charity Tusk, which highlights the severe threat they face from poaching, and will be auctioned to support the charity’s work on rhinos in Africa.
Mr Goldsmith said it was important for the conference to bring together not just governments but also the private sector, and pointed to progress already being made by online trading sites, and in the transport and tourism sectors.
“The private sector has to come together and work with governments, otherwise we’re going to lose,” he warned.
Quizzed on whether arming rangers with better weapons to protect wildlife was part of the solution, Mr Goldsmith said the UK could help countries with training and skills, rather than weaponry.
And he said: “Our job and our value is helping with intelligence gathering, the judicial process, helping them to build capacity so they can bring about an end to what is a very vicious and organised criminal activity.”
Tony Juniper, executive director of WWF, said: “The Secretary of State is right — the destruction of nature and disappearance of our wildlife is one of the greatest threats facing the human race.
“And it’s not just about the extinction of rhinos or tigers on the other side of the world. It’s about the disappearing birds, butterflies and other animals on our own doorsteps.
“We hope Mr Gove will translate this concern into ambitious action, by delivering a strong Environment Act that protects our wildlife and nature here at home, and leading other nations to agree a new global commitment for nature.”