Hot! Gallery Illegal Ivory Sold in Thailand Threatening Elephant Survival

Photo by Steve Jurvetson

By Nichole Osinski
Thailand has been named as a top destination for the trade and selling of elephant ivory by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The NGO reported that tens of thousands of African elephants are being killed by poachers each year and Thailand is one of the largest markets for distributing the ivory in violation of international law.

A report entitled Wildlife Crime Scorecard: Assessing Compliance with and Enforcement of CITES Commitments for Tigers, Rhinos and Elephants examined countries considering the range, transit and consumers for these species. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international convention that has been set up to form a legal framework to protect the international trade of plants and wild animals; Thailand is one of 175 countries that are signatories of this convention.

The report assigns countries scores of green, yellow or red for each animal, as applicable, as an indicator of recent progress. Thailand received a red score for its failure to close a legal loophole that makes it easy for retailers to sell ivory from domesticated elephants. This legality has allowed indistinguishable illegal African ivory to be sold openly in certain retail outlets.

“In Thailand, illegal African ivory is being openly sold in up-scale boutiques that cater to unsuspecting tourists. Governments will be taking up this troubling issue this week. So far Thailand has not responded adequately to concerns and, with the amount of ivory of uncertain origin in circulation, the only credible option at this stage is a ban on ivory trade,” said Elisabeth McLellan, Global Species Programme manager at WWF. 

Despite the negative report card from CITES, Thailand has been taking legal action against the illegal trade through its custom law. Most recently Thai customs officials seized half a ton of ivory at Bangkok’s international airport. The 1,000 pounds of ivory were found hidden in crates labeled as ‘handicrafts’ aboard a flight from Kenya. One official estimated that the 158 pieces of ivory were from the tusks of around 50 elephants.

Nevertheless, various NGO surveys show that more than 26,000 ivory products were being sold in local Thailand markets in 2001. In 2008 surveys found 50 more retail outlets offering ivory items in Bangkok and Chiang Mai than in the previous year. Bangkok has accounted for over 70 per cent of the retail outlets offering ivory items according to the wildlife trade monitoring network.

Edwin Wiek, the founder and secretary general of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand noted that in Thailand the elephant has gone from a revered animal that was even the symbol on Thailand’s former flag to becoming simply a means for making a living.

“Nowadays the elephant is just a horse; it’s an animal that you keep to make money,” said Wiek. “There’s around a thousand elephants in captivity in Thailand. The elephants that are still in the wild are in continuous threat from the illegal trade for tourism where baby elephants are taken out of the wild but at the same time big male elephants, these so called tuskers, are under threat to the ivory trade.”

At the 62nd meeting of the Standing Committee of CITES in Geneva, Chairman of the Committee, Mr Øysten Størkersen said that elephant and rhino poaching and smuggling levels are at the worst level in a decade. 2011 was recorded as the highest number of large-scale seizures ever with very few cases being followed up with investigations or prosecutions. In Thailand’s case, the poaching and selling trends have correlated with an increasing affluence in China where raw ivory prices have doubled between 2004 and 2010.

“I think that Thailand at this moment is the main market through as a transit country from Africa into China,” said Wiek. “It is impossible to monitor everything…it is a grey market.”

Nevertheless, there have been successful operations in seizing illegal ivory and making arrests of those involved. The International Police Organization (INTERPOL) conducted the largest transnational operation targeting criminal organizations behind the illegal trafficking of ivory. More than 200 people were arrested and nearly two tones of contraband elephant ivory were confiscated.

Operation Worthy was a three-month long process involving 14 countries that also resulted in the recovery of 20 kilos of rhinoceros horn in addition to lion, leopard, and cheetah pelts, crocodile and python skin, live tropical birds, turtles, and other protected species destined for illegal trafficking.

“This has been to date the most wide-ranging operation coordinated by INTERPOL against the illegal ivory trade, not just in terms of seizures and arrests, but also in targeting the criminal organizations making millions of dollars through the killing and destruction of wildlife and their habitat, and associated crimes such as murder, corruption and money laundering,” said David Higgins, manager of INTERPOL’s Environmental Crime Programme.

Interview with Edwin Wiek: