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Tuesday, May 04, 2010
Ivory and Thailand's ebony image
How many elephant tusks have slipped through Suvarnabhumi airport into the hands of smugglers in the country?
It is hard to know. Even Customs Department authorities cannot begin to guess the answer the question. Only traders in the illicit business can.
In less than two months department officials at the airport have found and seized two big lots of ivory shipped by air into Thailand. The amounts were huge and very valuable.
On April 22, 1.4 tonnes of tusks loaded onto three pallets were found at a cargo warehouse waiting for somebody to pick them up.
The freight was falsely declared as materials to be used for printing machines ordered by Ugis Technology. Officials estimated the value of the contraband at 70 million baht.
Roughly two months ago, 239 pieces of ivory with a combined weight of two tonnes were discovered at the airport. Had they been successfully reclaimed, they could have been sold for 120 million baht. The shipment was also falsely declared as equipment for Lao Telecommunication, a company in Vientiane.
Both Ugis Technology and Lao Telecommunication have no idea how their names were dragged into this business. The firms were simply being used by illegal ivory traders to try to fool customs authorities. The smugglers can fool the authorities sometimes, but they cannot do it all the time. But even a few successes is worth the effort.
It is not possible for customs authorities to check every little bit of cargo transitting the airport, which is the main gateway for air freight. Every day there are 5,000 air shipments coming in from all airlines and there are only a handful of officials to check the cargo.
The smugglers gamble on these uneven odds between cargo and manpower to get the ivory out of Suvarnabhumi. Once it clears the airport, it goes directly to carvers in Thailand to polish and decorate the tusks for sale, mainly to American-Chinese in the United States and also in European countries. The finished product is sold for at least 34,000 baht per kilogramme depending on the quality and pattern compared with 8,000 baht per kilo for the raw ivory.
The price margin is attractive enough for the smugglers to take a risk. And that forces officials to play a cat-and-mouse game. In the past the tusks were directly shipped by air from African countries to Thailand. After the department closed this avenue, the contraband is being rerouted via a third country, mainly the United Arab Emirates and Qatar because those two countries have airlines with flights to Bangkok and the African continent. Now that the flights from those Middle East countries are on the watch list of anti-ivory fighters, the illegal trade route will no doubt change again.
As long as Thailand maintains a reputation for having some of the world's best tusk carving, attempts to bring it into the country will never end. This problem will never end until it is solved at the root cause. Thailand is only in the middle of the demand and supply chain of this illegal business. It is in for carving and out for buyers.
Unless the governments in African countries which are the source of origin stop turning a blind eye and start seriously cracking down on illegal ivory exports, the trade against endangered species will flourish. The international community and wildlife protectors must step up measures and pressure to force the exporting countries to take action on ivory gangs.
For Thailand, the country should do more than just seizing tusks shipped into the country. Law enforcement authorities must go after carvers who turn the raw ivory into much wanted products and crack down on every step of this illicit trade to deter smugglers.
The kingdom now has been on the illegal ivory trade watchlist by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) since 2006. Only Congo and Nigeria have more problems with this trade, according to Cites, which kept Thailand on the list in a meeting last month despite lobbying efforts from the country. It will not be removed until the illegal trade is tackled right at where the problem begins.