You can buy it freely in urban markets and rural stalls set up at elephant shows in Thailand every day: ivory, carved into everything from intricate statuettes of the pachyderm-headed Hindu deity Ganesh that go for more than $1,000 a piece to tiny tusk pendants worth less than $10.
But the thriving trade here, conservationists say, is helping fuel the unprecedented slaughter of elephants thousands of miles away in Africa, where the largest land mammals on earth are facing their worst poaching epidemic in decades. It's a crisis so grave experts now believe more are being killed than are being born.
How to slow the slaughter and curb the trade in "blood ivory" will be among the most critical issues up for debate at the 177-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, that gets under way Sunday in Bangkok. And the meeting's host, Thailand, will be under particular pressure to take action.
That's because this Southeast Asian country is notorious not only as a major hub for illegally trafficked wildlife; it's also where much of the ivory smuggled out of Africa ends up — a destination second worldwide only to China, according to the wildlife monitoring network, TRAFFIC.
"Instead of being part of the problem, the Thai government can be part of the solution by banning ivory sales" altogether within its borders, said Janpai Ongsiriwittaya of the World Wildlife Fund.
Last week, the conservation group presented a global petition with more than half a million signatures to Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, calling on her government to do just that. The trade is currently legal here as long as it involves tusks that came from native herds that have been domesticated.
Yingluck responded by saying she recognized the importance of elephant conservation and would take the plea into consideration. Thai wildlife officials have said previously that an all-out ban on ivory is not possible because those Thais who legitimately own domesticated animals should also have the right to buy and sell tusks locally.
The problem, though, is that once ivory enters Thai markets — legally or not — it's tough to figure out where it came from. Nevertheless, "most of the supply we see in Thai markets is illegally smuggled in from Africa," Janpai said. More....