Prince William spoke of the “heartbreaking” thought that by the time his children are in their 20s, elephants, rhinos and tigers could be extinct in the wild.
Making the keynote address at a major conference to tackle the illegal trade in wildlife parts in London on Thursday, the royal dad, 36, said, “I, for one, am not willing to look my children in the eye and say that we were the generation that let this happen on our watch. It is time to treat the illegal wildlife trade as the serious organized crime that it is.”
“It is heartbreaking to think that by the time my children George, Charlotte and Louis are in their 20s, elephants, rhinos and tigers might well be extinct in the wild,” he said.
“I feel it is my duty, and our collective responsibility, to leave our planet in a stronger position for our children.”
He delivered the speech at the fourth Illegal Wildlife Trade conference, which is backed by his United for Wildlife consortium. “Organized criminal networks are adding to their profits through involvement in wildlife crime,” he said. “They see it as a lucrative and relatively low-risk activity. They are the very same groups who move drugs, people and weapons.”
And he noted that during his recent tour of Africa, “I saw [rhinos] under such threat that they have more bodyguards than I do! Wouldn’t it be better though if the demand for rhino horn dropped to the extent that they didn’t need anyone to protect them at all?”
As he toured some of the exhibits at the Illegal Wildlife Trade conference, William met officials from the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime.
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Miwa Kato, director of operations at the UNODC, praised him for making the connection with trafficking and other organized crime. She tells PEOPLE, “He is a new kind of leader. He is not just passionate and emotional about it, but is also talking about the economics of this. We don’t have that clearly from many other leaders. He was not on script but talking with passion and with a longer term vision. This issue requires a new generation of leadership who can talk to people and come up with solutions.”
William also heard the powerful story of how a ranger had been turned from poacher to keeper in the mountainous kingdom of Bhutan. He met Jampel Lhendup, 30, explained how he had poached alongside his father Therchung, 60, from the ages of 5 to 9, in order to feed their family. But when they killed a deer cub and its mother, it was a turning point. “It was the affection that they had felt to each other. We first killed the cub and when we were carrying it out when the mother followed and we killed her too,” he says.
Seeing the blood in the mother’s eyes had an impact, he adds. “It changed the mind of my father, and he sent me to school and I became a ranger. I was explaining the affection that the mother had for the cub [William] seemed emotional when I told him my story.”
The illegal wildlife trade (IWT) is organized crime, estimated to be worth up to $23 billion annually.