The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, will host the highest level global summit to date on combating the illegal wildlife trade in London.

The summit next February, to which 50 heads of state have been invited, aims to tackle the $19 billion-a-year illegal trade in endangered animals, such as elephants and rhinos, by delivering an unprecedented political commitment along with an action plan and the mobilisation of resources. The Prince of Wales and his son, the Duke of Cambridge, who will both attend the summit, have previously highlighted the strong links between wildlife poaching, international criminal syndicates and terrorism and threats to national security. “We face one of the most serious threats to wildlife ever, and we must treat it as a battle — because it is precisely that,” said Prince Charles in May.

Elephant ivory and rhino horn are worth more than illegal diamonds or gold, and the proceeds have been used by rebel groups in African countries, such as al-Shabaab in Somalia and the Lords Resistance Army in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Heads of state from many African countries are expected to attend and the countries where the products are sold, including China and Vietnam, will be represented, though the level of representation is not yet finalised.

The summit will be chaired by Foreign Secretary William Hague and Environment Secretary Owen Paterson. In September, Mr. Hague called the illegal trade “absolutely shocking” and said it was an “issue that affects us all.” Mr. Paterson visited Kenya this month and saw elephants killed by poachers. He will visit China with Mr. Cameron next month.

The level of wildlife crime has soared in recent years, driven by demand form the rapidly expanding middle classes in Asia who value tiger, elephant and rhino products as status symbols. In South Africa 13 rhinos were killed in 2007, but the tally to date in 2013 is 860. 2012 was the worst year for ivory seizures, with the equivalent of the tusks of 30,000 elephants confiscated.

There have also been efforts to tackle the popularity of shark fin soup in Asia, which is one of the reasons that around 100 million sharks are killed annually. Wildaid, a group that uses donated advertising to change public attitudes, has run a campaign on state TV in China featuring movie star Jackie Chan and basketball legend Yao Ming, against shark fin soup.

Prince Charles and William also visited London Zoo on November 26 for a meeting with the conservation alliance United for Wildlife, whose seven member organisations include the zoo, WWF and the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The royals discussed how new technology, such as drones, is being used to fight poaching. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013