How three departments organised an international conference to tackle the illegal wildlife trade

Three government departments collaborated to organise a major international conference on illegal wildlife trade in London last month. Conference director Andrew McCulloch explains how they did it

Andrew McCulloch Photo: Defra

By Richard Johnstone

27 Nov 2018

It is a stark reality that nearly 60% of the world’s animals have disappeared within my lifetime. An average of 20,000 elephants are illegally killed through poaching each year, causing a devastating decline in their population numbers. This type of illegal wildlife trade (IWT) is worth up to £17bn every year; it is one of the most lucrative forms of organised crime, and it isn’t limited to species such as the elephant and rhinoceros.

Endangered species are also threatened by things such as rising human populations, climate change and changes of land-use. Together, these factors put 1,003 species of plants and animals under threat of extinction according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Such devastation could have unimaginable effects on our planet’s fragile ecosystems.

This context demonstrates why it was such a vital time to hold a major international conference in London on IWT. Held on the 11 and 12 October, this was the fourth international IWT conference, building a 46-nation event in 2014, and smaller meetings in Kasane, Botswana and Hanoi, Vietnam. This conference was to be distinctively different, however. In addition to delegations from 73 countries, stakeholders, academics and the private sector were also invited.


I was appointed as conference director five months before the event and there were three significant challenges in my inbox: bringing together different units from three government departments; ensuring the views of stakeholders and other countries were taken into account; and balancing the policy and communications agendas to ensure maximum value.

Three become one

The Foreign Office (FCO), Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for International Development (DfID) are culturally different organisations that have developed differently over time. On top of the policy units from these three departments with their supporting communications officials, I had to integrate a project delivery unit for the logistics of the conference.

We wanted actively to encourage many of the differences in working practice between teams to allow for a wide range of views and perspectives to be drawn together in making this conference happen. To help facilitate this I created a set of team values, such as empowerment, wellbeing and positive morale. Others on the team facilitated a social agenda developing sessions on getting to know individuals within the joint unit to share as much as possible and to build a collaborative working ethic. We did what we could within the constraints placed upon us successfully to build team morale and generate a positive working environment. A major development in this approach was around four months before the conference when policy and delivery officials were brought together within one building at Nobel House in a joint IWT unit.

Multi-stakeholder engagement

We had two clear goals to achieve: the overarching mission was to tackle and prevent IWT around the world and show UK global leadership on this issue; the second goal was to deliver, on a logistical and global communication level, a great conference. It was important to remember these when dealing with stakeholders and working with delegations from other nations. We met regularly, either physically or virtually, with a wide range of non-governmental organisations and countries that would be taking part in the conference. We had a big venue in Battersea Park, which allowed us to create a range of public and private sessions. This facilitated the international diplomacy needed to secure commitments on tackling IWT, as well as giving opportunities for NGOs and delegations to showcase their work and to build upon the many successes in international conservation.

The size of the venue and the range of sessions also meant we had to pay close attention to the flow of individuals around the conference, planning the agenda carefully and giving clear speaking briefs to ensure sessions ran to time.

Substance and impact

The third issue was balancing the policy and communications agenda, to ensure we had the right amount of substance to our discussions and also engaged the public. The policy was quite complex, with topics around closing markets for illegal goods, coalition building and tackling IWT as a serious and organised crime. Messages needed to be focused and refined, considering the need to secure both consumer behavioural change and global governmental commitments. In some areas such as tracking financial flows it was important to communicate that the institutions and those involved are taking action, but those individual actions might not need to be included in our overarching messaging. Defining our key messages proved to be an important element to our strategy.

The build up to the conference was such a success that more people than expected confirmed their attendance – we had 1,300 attendees over the two days. My favourite moments included the first lady of the Republic of Sierra Leone, H. E. Fatima Maada Bio, speaking about female empowerment in Africa during a panel session chaired by former New Zealand prime minister, Helen Clark. Young people also played a significant part in this conference. Online videomaker and blogger, Bella Lack and young actor and UN Goodwill Ambassador, Aidan Gallagher. Environment secretary Michael Gove gave an excellent speech to open day two (pictured) and certainly encouraged the many visiting nations to sign up to commitments.

We have already seen significant successes from the conference: more than 50 countries signed up to the London Declaration, a package of commitments to crack down on the illegal trade in wildlife, plants and timber. More than 40 countries have made specific commitments, including Laos declaring a near total ban on commercial ivory trading and Germany underlining its huge investment in tackling this issue. The UK announced creation of a new body – Ivory Alliance 2024, chaired by Michael Gove – which will look at innovative ways to encourage other countries to implement domestic ivory bans and to protect elephants in their natural environment.

As to my personal future, I’ve just been appointed to the board of England Social Work – the new social work regulator. Multi-agency and multi-stakeholder partnership working has been a huge part of my career and much of my work in the health sector has informed the way I have worked on this conference. I’ve been interested in the environment since childhood and this was a way to make a contribution on an international scale. I wish the government and NGO colleagues well in continuing the fight against IWT.

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