Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a matter of great personal pride for me that these awards, which bear my name, are now in their second year. I can't tell you how grateful I am that you are all here to support them – it means a lot to me that this passion of mine, which Tusk exemplifies, is shared by all of you, too.
I'm not sure how many of you have been fortunate to witness Tusk's work on the ground in Africa. Any of you who know Charlie Mayhew, Tusk's fearless leader, will know that Charlie doesn't leave anything to chance.
My favourite Tusk moment was about four years ago in Botswana, where Charlie wanted to show off to me and my brother Harry their ground-breaking work in the Okavango Delta protecting predators. To entice us there, Charlie organised a field trip led by scientists running a camp in the Delta.
There was a practice run the day before Harry and I arrived. Charlie did this alone with the researchers, and the success of the project was obvious to all involved in that practice run. They encountered an abundance of virtually every species in Botswana. A leopard, a cheetah mid-kill, a pride of lions, elephant, rhino, hyena, giraffe, sightings of rare species of antelope, and on it went – as if Noah's Ark had landed and was spilling out its passengers in front of their eyes.
And then it came to Harry and me the next day - all I encountered was an empty crisp packet left by a tourist and a blip on a radar showing that out there, somewhere, was a lion. Nothing. Even the birds were staying away. At one point, Charlie – desperate for an animal, any animal – began to express solemn interest in termite mounds. Even the media got bored and went back to the camp early. Never has the Okavango Delta been so empty of wildlife.
But, Charlie, ever the optimist, managed to draw one lesson from the day – perhaps he was in control after all. As Charlie pointed out, that morning's outing did at least highlight, quite starkly, how empty even the beautiful African landscape would look without its inhabitants. Perhaps the sign of things to come in 15 years time. As I've said before, time is running out.
This year's Tusk Conservation Awards are, for me, an opportunity to recognise and to highlight some of the remarkable – and courageous – conservation work being undertaken across Africa. The people we celebrate tonight, the nominees and all those they represent, work in some of the remotest and harshest environments on the continent. They regularly put their own lives at risk for the sake of conserving some of Africa's rarest and most treasured species. Their unquestioning, selfless dedication to the cause is humbling, and I pay tribute to all of you.
The work of this year's finalists serves to illustrate some of our greatest conservation challenges: dramatic loss of lion; poaching of elephant and rhino; deforestation; and the critical need for community involvement. A moment ago Richard spoke of community involvement as being one of three key ingredients to the success of any conservation initiative.
As I always say, we cannot and must not ever be tempted to distinguish between the state of Africa's wildlife and the prosperity of its people. The two issues are interlinked. Tusk knows this, and that is why it works with local communities, helping them to preserve the value of their own heritage.
I mentioned earlier the courage of the people who are nominated tonight. On that theme, next year, I am very pleased to say there will be a new, additional award, which will recognize the extraordinary bravery and commitment of Wildlife Rangers. These are the men and women at the frontline of the battle – and it is a battle – to save some of the world's most iconic species. The Rangers face grave danger every day, not only in the form of wild cats or charging elephants, but heavily armed poachers who are just as prepared to shoot and kill them, as they are the animals they hunt. Over the last ten years, over 1,000 rangers have given their lives in the name of conservation. We live in a sorry world when an elephant requires the sacrifice of a human being for its own survival.
Sadly, Africa continues to face unprecedented challenges in terms of poaching, driven by the flourishing illegal trade in wildlife parts. Africa's elephant population has crashed from 1.3 million in 1979 to approximately just 400,000 today. South Africa is currently losing more than 3 rhino a day to feed demand for rhino horn. The African lion is now estimated to be fewer than 25,000, and of course there are numerous lesser known species facing similar or worse fates.
The contribution made by the nominees and recipients of the Tusk Conservation Awards to preserve Africa’s natural heritage is enormous. But, these people cannot face the bullets and the threats alone. It is up to governments and international bodies to unite behind them, and to play a meaningful part in ensuring that their efforts on the ground are fruitful. The Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade held here in London in February made good progress in focusing the attention of the world on the plight of animals like elephants and rhinos. Many African nations, and others, have shown commendable leadership, but there is much, much more work for all of us to do.
This brings me to acknowledge and thank Tusk for the tireless collaborative work they undertake behind the scenes to support international initiatives such as the London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade. They somehow manage this, alongside their support for some 50 projects across Africa.
I would also like to thank the generosity of Tusk's corporate partners – particularly Investec Asset Management, without whom this event would not have been possible. Thank you for your continued generosity.
To finish, I would just like to offer my sincerest congratulation and heartfelt thanks to all the nominees and winners of this year's awards. Please, everyone, do make an effort to meet them, congratulate them and hear their stories for yourselves.
I wish everyone a very pleasant evening.