Stamp out the trade in ivory

Although Sundays are a traditional day of rest, few in Bangkok will be taking it easy on March 3. More than 2 million citizens will flock to the polls to elect their new governor while delegates who have flown into the capital from all over the world kick off what is expected to be a heated two-week meeting on animal and plant conservation. The cruelties of the ivory trade and the hunting of species to extinction will be high on the agenda as delegates ponder how best to combat an illegal trade in wildlife and rare plants worth hundreds of billions of baht a year.

It is the first time since 2004 that the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (Cites) has convened its triennial meeting here and, while the official position might be not to ruffle the feathers of the host nation, behind the scenes there will be criticism over what is seen as this country's lukewarm enforcement of wildlife conservation measures and the ease with which criminals seem able to circumvent the international trade ban on ivory. This led to concern being expressed by the United States last October. Without giving specifics, Washington claimed that revenue from the illegal African ivory trade was going to guerrilla groups, which used the dirty money to buy weapons.

While Cites did well by outlawing the international trade in ivory in 1989, there is a legal loophole which gangs are exploiting. Because the sale of ivory from domestic Thai elephants is permitted, criminals smuggle in ivory from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and lie that it is locally obtained and therefore legal. Now, under Thai law, this ivory is only supposed to be from elephants in captivity here and certified for sale by the Provincial Administration Department, but black market operators have scant regard for the law. The same can be said of those who carve the ivory and re-export it, mainly to China. As a result, the amount of poaching and elephant slaughter in African countries is spiralling out of control and has reached unsustainable levels. In one recent 12-week period, 12 tonnes of ivory were seized in just four incidents.

A solution is simple but enforcing it would pose a challenge. Thailand is being left with little choice but to impose a ban on the domestic trade in ivory to reinforce the Cites embargo and close the existing loophole. To do otherwise would hasten the demise of our own elephant population. Tough penalties are needed for offenders that are proportionate to the seriousness of the crime as the present maximum of four years in prison for trafficking in endangered species is no deterrent given the high stakes. Although customs officers at Suvarnabhumi airport made a record number of seizures of illegal tusks from Africa last year, they are being overwhelmed and need a tough new law with teeth. It is not only the airport. Just last week a police officer was arrested and charged with trying to smuggle 20 elephant tusks when his police van was stopped at a checkpoint in Chumphon.

Sadly, this exploitation and neglect goes far beyond elephants. Worldwide, the wildlife and ivory trade as a whole is reputed to be the second largest form of black market commerce, falling only behind drug smuggling. Successive Thai governments have held out promises of tougher laws to protect the country's disappearing wildlife, something the well-intentioned but ineffectual 1992 Preservation and Protection Act and 1961 Parks Act have clearly failed to do.

The only way we are going to improve our reputation on the international stage is to take the trade in ivory and wildlife a lot more seriously and stamp it out.