Ivory needs a new approach

For well over two decades, the government and parliament have been wildly out of sync with the people they claim to represent. Over the next 10 days, officials and politicians are going to hear this, sometimes in harsh and unpleasant terms. The occasion is the meeting in Bangkok of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

World bodies, representatives of 176 nations and many non-government organisations will be harsh critics of their hosts on what they see as shortcomings in Thai laws and actions. Often, they will be right.

The fact is that Thailand has lost its edge as a protector of its environment. Some even say it never had such an edge. But the truth is that conservation battles in Thailand have taken on a double face. On one side, it is the country that banned the sale of chainsaws, but then watched many of its protected forests and mangroves fall anyway. It set aside tens of thousands of rai of protected land, chased away the traditional inhabitants _ and then allowed resorts and big businesses to intrude.

The Cites delegates have come to Bangkok with many items on their agenda, but one big issue dominates - elephants. It is the opinion of many that the Thai law on ivory art has helped to drive both a demand and supply for elephant tusks in a way that actually causes extensive poaching in Africa. Weeks ago, the demand started to build that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra should take a personal stand for a law to outlaw the ivory trade in Thailand entirely.

Certainly, as of today, that would be the easy thing to do. The promise of a new law banning all ivory sales and trading could make the convention happy. It could create positive comment worldwide about Ms Yingluck and the country. But as with the chainsaws, the protected parkland and a dozen other important environmental issues, a new law could be even worse than the present situation.

Right now, smugglers often get past customs officers in half a dozen countries, including Thailand. Ivory goes into the backrooms of artisans as contraband, and comes out rebranded as domestic ivory from elephants who have died at a happy old age. There is no doubt tonnes of ivory is involved, and most of it is from African countries.

But a simple ban on the ivory trade would only push the entire industry underground. A ban on the ivory trade is far different from an effective ban. If Ms Yingluck is serious about involving Thailand in the worldwide effort to protect elephants, she and the country will have to commit to a meaningful process, and then actually carry it through.

For the moment, forget Africa. The local ivory trade is corrupt. Ivory dealers and elephant keepers collude to kill wild Thai elephants and forge documents "proving" they are domesticated. A simple registration of elephants, enforced with electronic chips, would be cheap and effective. But corrupt ivory traders and poachers are against it. Ms Yingluck can help to protect elephants worldwide with better laws and regulations that are backed up by enforcement. Education campaigns must let the public know that owning new ivory is no longer a symbol of high class, but of low. Any ban on ivory trading must begin with honest enforcement and a national commitment. Otherwise, such a ban will be meaningless.