The Duke of Cambridge has said he is not willing to face his children and tell them his generation let wildlife such as elephants and tigers go extinct “on our watch”.
William has told an international conference that the illegal wildlife trade was run by criminal networks who threatened the livelihoods of generations to come and exploited the poor, as well as harming wild species.
He urged political leaders, businesses and conservation groups at the meeting to work together to tackle the illegal wildlife trade, rather than in silos – and see the connections with other major organised crimes such as drugs.
His keynote speech came as the UK Government announced £900,000 of new funding which will see the British Army deployed to train African park rangers in more effective and safer counter-poaching techniques.
The duke said: “I feel it is my duty and our collective responsibility to leave our planet in a stronger position for our children.”
And he said: “It’s heartbreaking to think that by the time my children, George, Charlotte and Louis are in their twenties, elephants, rhinos and tigers might well be extinct in the wild.
“I for one am not willing to look my children in the eye and say we were the generation that let this happen on our watch.”
William told the conference that some of rhinos he saw on a recent trip to Africa are so threatened “they have more bodyguards than I do.”
Wanting to protect nature is not just an emotional issue, “it makes economic sense”, he said.
And he told delegates: “Caring about the environment – our air, water, land and animals – is motivated by something that is simple and universal.
“A desire to protect this planet for those who will come after us.
“I firmly believe that the natural world is our biggest and most important asset, and the key to our future prosperity.”
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told the conference numbers of elephants and tigers had plummeted in recent decades and governments lost as much as 15 billion US dollars (£11bn) a year from illegal logging.
While the 26 billion US dollar-a-year illegal wildlife trade was not the sole cause of animals disappearing, everyone suffered from its effects, he said.
“The criminal gangs who smuggle horns and tusks pose one of the greatest threats to the survival of wildlife.
“They target some of the poorest countries in the world, spreading corruption and depriving governments of desperately needed revenues that could be used for schools and hospitals,” he said.
Action to enforce laws and prosecute smugglers could have an effect, he said, pointing to Nepal where no rhinos or tigers had been poached for four years.
As the two-day conference got under way, the Government announced £900,000 of new funding to develop a new British military counter-poaching taskforce.
The British Army will be deployed to train African park rangers in more effective and safer counter-poaching techniques, with the aim of catching more poachers and bringing them to justice.
In a video message to the conference, Prime Minister Theresa May also pledged the UK would do everything to bring down the illegal trade, including taking action domestically, such as the ivory ban.
“I’m clear we need to treat this billion dollar criminal enterprise in the same way we do other sources of organised crime by shutting it down from every possible angle,” she said.
Singer and UN environment goodwill ambassador Ellie Goulding urged world leaders to make ending the illegal wildlife trade an urgent priority.
“It breaks all of our hearts that elephants and rhinos which have roamed the earth for millions of years could be lost within our lifetimes.
“Future generations may never know the star power of some of the greatest species that have ever walked the planet,” she warned.
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions told the conference that President Donald Trump took the issue seriously and had directed his government to use all its tools to disrupt and dismantle it.
“The United States views poaching and trafficking of protected wildlife as a threat to good governance, a threat to the rule of law, a challenge to our stewardship and responsibility for this good Earth,” Mr Sessions said.