Thailand at the centre of rising illegal ivory trade
A new report detailing the slaughter of African elephants to supply increasingly sophisticated smuggling gangs has led critics to charge that flaws in the country's policy on domesticated elephants help to fuel the bloody business
'They are all authentic elephant ivory,'' a middle-aged retailer of crafted ivory ornaments told a group of visitors at her shop in Nakhon Sawan's Phayuha Khiri district last week.
INFAMY AND IVORY: Above, a retailer shows a carved ivory ornament in a shop in Phayuha Khiri district in Nakhon Sawan. Above right, police occasionally conduct checks for illegal ivory on shops in Phayuha Khiri, but African ivory is difficult to distinguish from the domestic variety without DNA testing.
In the shop, which has been selling talismans and ornaments for many years along with more than 10 similar shops in the area, the ivory baubles are placed in one corner of a showcase. Most of the items for sale are crafts made from the parts of other animals, but the display is a stark reminder that the ivory trade continues in Thailand, although it is low profile. The retailer was hesitant to reveal where the ivory came from.
However, her son, who is the main craftsman at the shop, insisted that the ivory comes only from registered domestic elephants.
''You see we have a registration certificate over there,'' said the man, pointing to a document from the Commerce Ministry saying that the shop has permission to sell products made from registered domestic elephants.
Be that as it may, such shops in Phayuha Khiri district have in the past been accused of involvement in the trade of ivory taken from African elephants, with ivory seizures not uncommon. The processing and sales of African elephant ivory and other parts are banned under the international agreement known as Cites (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).
African elephants are listed under Appendix 1 of the convention, meaning live elephants as well as their parts cannot be sold internationally. Nevertheless, the trade continues, and a new report from Cites' standing subcommittee says it is on the rise. The trend has prompted concerns for the elephant population in several African countries, especially as the criminal gangs responsible have become more sophisticated.
Detection and prosecution are more elusive with the involvement of organised crime syndicates and guerrilla groups in Africa.
Thailand's loose controls over domestic processing and elephant ivory trade have been severely criticised by conservation groups who claim that the current regulations provide a ''loophole'' for the smuggling and illegal trade of elephant parts. As a result, critics say, the slaughter of African elephants in recent years has been increasing in recent years.
Petch Manopawitr, WWF Thailand programme manager, said: ''I think we have to accept that we are part of the problem _ the killing of African elephants. We are being watched by the international community, but hardly any progress has been made so far to close loopholes.''
To accomplish this, he added, elephant supervision must fall under the purview of a single body and an overhaul of relevant laws and regulations is needed.
TRADITION UNDER FIRE
Thi Sangworali, leader of a club of ivory crafters in Phayuha Khiri district, said residents there have a long history of trading and processing ivory that can be traced back at least 50 years.
The tradition started with monks who carved ivory into talismans, which they believed would possess great power as elephants are respected animals in Thai culture. Their skills were passed on to people who studied in the temples, and Phayuha Khiri became the centre of the ivory trade in the country.
Initially, Mr Thi said, carvers would seek ivory from domesticated elephants. The sale of live domesticated elephants and their parts is not banned under the Interior Ministry's Transport Animals Act, as it is for wild elephants. Mr Thi said elephant caretakers would take tusks from either live or dead elephants, cut them into pieces and sell them to the carvers.
MISSION TO SAVE: Petch Manopawitr, the WWF Thailand programme manager, says stopping the illegal ivory trade is more urgent than ever.
This began to change around the time Thailand signed Cites and improved its wildlife protection law in 1992. Although there were still no provisions prohibiting the trade in domesticated elephants, changing attitudes acted to discourage it. Shortly afterward, elephant tusks from foreign sources started to flood in. The carvers knew their origins, said Mr Thi, but were usually unaware that they were prohibited under Cites. Awareness increased, however, after some traders were arrested starting in 2002 and their ivory was seized.
After the authorities began to crack down, an underground trade began to take shape, said Mr Thi. Under pressure to uphold Cites, Thai authorities came up with more stringent measures to control the trade and processing of elephant ivory. These included the requirement under the Commercial Registration Act that retailers and producers of elephant ivory items must register and be able to produce records of their sales and stocks.
The National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation Department is now considering listing African Elephants as a protected species under the Wildlife Protection Act.
REPORT SENDS OUT A WARNING
Despite efforts to stem the flow of African elephant tusks into the country, Thailand is consistently named by conservation groups as a top destination, as is China.
A report submitted before the Cites standing committee in the middle of last year, titled ''Elephant Conservation, Illegal Killing and Ivory Trade'', paints a bleak picture of the plight of African elephants.
The report was compiled from Cites-authorised databases including Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants and Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS), and presents data showing a correlation between the illegal trade in African elephant parts and the slaughter of the animals.
THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG: Below, customs officers dIsplay two tonnes of African elephant tusks seized at Suvarnabhumi airport, valued at 120 million baht.
The report says that from 1989 until April, 2012, there were 17,757 seizures of elephant products from 88 countries, 15,936 of these were ivory seizures totalling 395,990kg. The report notes that in China there has been a steady increase in the wholesale price paid by carvers and processors for raw ivory, roughly doubling between 2002 and 2004 from around US$150 to $350 per kg. Between 2004 and 2010 the price increased to $750 per kilogramme reflecting increased demand.
There were 31 large-scale ivory seizures from 1989 to 1999, and 54 large-scale seizures from 2000 to April of last year. This amounts to around 4.5 seizures per year, but in 2011 the number of seizures was in the double digits _ 14, totalling 24.3 tonnes _ for the first time in the 23 years Cites has been keeping records.
The seizures no doubt represent a small fraction of the actual volume of trade in illegal ivory. ''How many such consignments are able to reach their final destination without detection remains unknown, but it is certain that ivory is being smuggled successfully,'' the report said.
Thai authorities have made more seizures than any other Asian countries in the last three years, with six large-scale seizures of about 8.3 tonnes in total.
The Cites standing committee report warned that the engagement of organised criminal syndicates in the illicit ivory trade between Africa and Asia was becoming increasingly more entrenched.
According to the report, large-scale ivory shipments are commonly sent from eastern African countries like Kenya and Tanzania and directed to Asian destinations. Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Hong Kong are believed to serve as the principal transit gateways for re-export onto China and Thailand.
Meanwhile, new trade routes through Cambodia and Laos are apparently emerging. In 2001 shipments seized in Kenya and Malaysia were reportedly destined for Cambodia, a country that the report said had never previously appeared in the ETIS database as a destination or transit country for large ivory shipments.
As the market for ivory in Cambodia appears to be small, it is believed that these shipments were destined to be transported overland to Thailand or China. ''The criminal syndicates behind these large movements of ivory are believed to be highly adaptive and the emergence of new trade routes in the ETIS data is likely to be evidence of evolving tactics,'' says the report.
It seems intuitive that increased trade in ivory through organised syndicates translates into more elephants lying dead in the plains of Africa.
Last year, 1,408 new carcasses were reported from 37 sites in Africa. Questionnaires were sent out by elephant conservation networks on poaching levels across Africa covering 29 sites in 12 countries. An increase in poaching over the last 12 months was reported in 19 sites in nine countries, the report said.
''The rise in levels of illegal killing and the dynamics surrounding it are worrying, not only for small and fragmented elephant populations that could face extirpation, but also for previously secure large populations,'' says the report. ''Conflict situations are known to deteriorate further the poor protection afforded to elephants and this is of concern in particular for areas with emerging and ongoing instability.
''At a minimum,'' the report continues, ''armed conflict hampers monitoring activities.''
SYSTEM RIPE FOR ABUSE
While there is little hard evidence linking the fates of African elephants to Thailand's elephant ivory processing and trade hub at Phayuha Khiri, conservationists remain suspicious. Ivory crafter Mr Thi does not rule out the underground trade and smuggling of African elephant ivory in domestic markets, considering the enormous potential profits. One kilogramme of domestic ivory can fetch about 40,000 baht. When carved into decorative items, the value skyrockets. One ivory ring, for example, costs about 5,000 baht.
Mr Thi dismissed allegations that pieces crafted from smuggled ivory are mixed with registered domestic ivory, but admitted that it is virtually impossible to determine origin without DNA testing.
He said registered shops buy registered elephant ivory with the proper certification. However, he could not guarantee that such certification wasn't sometimes forged. There have been allegations that some shops knowingly buy ivory for which the certification has been forged.
Mr Manopawitr, the WWF Thailand programme manager, said some people may view the smuggling and illegal trade in elephant ivory as just ''the same old problem'', but that in recent years a worrying trend has emerged that makes addressing it all the more urgent.
Mr Petch echoed the Cites standing committee report's statements that not only are African elephants being killed in large numbers, but the killing has become more sophisticated and organised. Last year, WWF documented cases in Cameroon in which heavy weapons were used to kill hundreds of elephants. Mr Petch said such incidents are undeniably linked to the illegal ivory trade. He added that although Thai businesses claim to use only parts from local domesticated elephants, the management of these elephants itself provides a loophole for the exploitation of African elephants.
Even though domestic elephants are certified, he continued, data collection and monitoring is weak, complicating the verification of registered animals. Also of concern is the lack of integration in the management of domestic elephants, as each agency has only limited authority to oversee particular areas. For example, the National Parks Department oversees only wild elephants, while the Commerce Ministry deals with the trade in domesticated elephants.
This division of oversight authority, combined with the difficulty in differentiating between parts from various elephant species, helps facilitate the illegal trade in African ivory in Thailand, said Mr Petch.
WWF and allied organisations are planning to file a global petition calling on a ban on ivory from African elephants. Mr Petch said this should not adversely affect law-abiding ivory retailers in Thailand and would actually benefit the local industry as it would provide a means of clearing operators from allegations of wrongdoing.
Thanawat Thongtan, acting director of the National Parks Department's Wild Fauna and Flora Protection Division, admitted that the international community is keeping an eye on Thailand because of widespread accusations it is at the centre of the trade in African elephant tusks. He also agreed that there is a flaw in the system of supervising elephants and their parts in Thailand because of a lack of cross-agency integration. But he said, the country has attempted to address the problem by strengthening relevant laws and regulations and implementing more stringent controls on the domestic trade, including registration of retail shops and registration of domestic elephants and tusks.
He agreed that an integrated system for the management of Thai elephants is needed, but wasn't optimistic this would be accomplished in the near future. ''We will tell them again at the coming Cites meeting in Thailand that we have tried our best, but as it involves several agencies, we need time,'' said Mr Thanawat.
A TUSK TASK: Above and left, many domesticated elephants are raised by private operators who then cut their tusks for sale. They are supposed to be registered with the Interior Ministry, but often their origins cannot be traced, complicating verification.
CARVING OUT CONTROVERSY: Above left and right, these authentic carved ivory ornaments are among many for sale at retail shops in Phayuha Khiri.
IVORY ALLEY: This stretch of road in Nakhon Sawan’s Phayuha Khiri district is known for having several shops that sell crafted ivory items.
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- Writer: Piyaporn Wongruang