By Anchalee Kongrut
For the majority of the population of Thailand, the elephant is a much-loved and revered animal that has been elevated to almost national status. Problems concerning the majestic animal have, however, long-dogged the country and late last month wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic unveiled a research paper that criticised Thailand for encouraging the massive slaughter of elephants in Africa by failing to control the domestic ivory market.
The paper, entitled “Polishing Off The Ivory: Surveys Of Thailand’s Ivory Market”, focuses on the illegal ivory trade in Thailand during the periods of Jan-April 2013 and from Oct 2013 to May this year. In summary, the amount of ivory found for sale in Bangkok has risen threefold in the past 18 months. Traffic argues that most of the ivory products available in Thailand were part of the so-called “blood ivory” trade, originating in Africa. Thailand has just 1,230 male elephants, which would account for approximately 650kg of ivory per year, meaning that a large amount of ivory available here must come from elsewhere.
Naomi Doak, co-ordinator of Traffic and member of the research team talks to Life about what Thailand should do and has failed to do in curbing the worldwide blood ivory trade.
What are the factors that make Thailand “one of the most problematic countries in the illegal ivory trade”?
Thailand has been recognised repeatedly over the last 10 years as one of the most problematic countries in regards to the illegal ivory trade. This recognition has come from independent analysis of the ivory market in Thailand as well as analysis of the global seizure records provided to the Elephant Trade Information System (Etis).
One of the underlying reasons is the existing legal market in ivory within Thailand. Currently, the law allows for the legal sale of items made from ivory sourced from Thai domesticated elephants. Unfortunately, this provides an unregulated market for the sale of ivory from African Elephants as well as wild Asian Elephants. Without a system to control and transparently trace ivory on the market back to its source and without effective enforcement of existing regulations, the market is effectively out of control.
Some of Africa’s most notorious armed groups, including the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Shabab and Darfur’s Janjaweed, have been hunting down elephants and using tusks to buy weapons and sustain their mayhem. What is the situation regarding the blood ivory trade?
It is important to note that the trafficking of any ivory from African Elephants is funding criminal activities, while the current levels of poaching and size of smuggled shipments are clearly indicative of the involvement of organised crime. The global ban on the international ivory trade, which came into effect through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in January 1990, was initially apparently successful in reducing poaching levels and illegal trade. These figures have, however, been on the rise again in the last few years. There is scant firm evidence one way or the other of the direct involvement of armed groups in the illegal ivory trade and also it is not possible, given the data, to identify where the ivory sold on the market in Thailand originates in terms of individual countries or elephant populations. One way to gather the data on this is to sample tusks or items from seizures or the market and analyse them forensically using methods including DNA and stable isotopes to link them back to specific elephant populations.
So what does the Thai government need to do?
Thailand urgently needs to implement national legislation that effectively implements the country’s commitments under Cites and the commitments made at the March 2013 Cites meeting of the Conference Of The Parties in Bangkok to end the domestic trade in ivory.
This could be achieved by providing urgent formal protection for African Elephants, along with other Cites-listed species, under Warpa, Thailand’s existing legislation to make the sale of African ivory on the domestic market illegal. Thai law currently implies legislative protection for African Elephants under its Cites commitment, but does not allow for seizures of listed species and their products once they are within the country.
Thai authorities are considering burning around 9 tonnes of confiscated ivory tusks. Is this going to solve the problem?
I do not think this will solve the problem. Destruction events have proven to be highly effective at securing media and public attention on the issue of illegal trade and provide a strong platform, even if largely symbolic, for countries to take a stand and publicly condemn poaching and illegal trade.
It is also important to note that any ivory in Thailand’s stockpiles is of illegal or unknown origin and cannot, under Cites rules, ever be traded and thus has zero commercial value. Destruction of ivory stockpiles does prevent the ivory leaking into illegal trade, however, it is essential that a complete audit of the stocks to be destroyed takes place in advance of the event.
In terms of raising social awareness, do you think Thailand is working hard enough and well enough to educate people about the issue of ivory trade and elephant poaching?
I think not enough is being done either in terms of raising awareness or crucially in changing consumer behaviour. Having been to the market and watching the constant flow of people buying items there is very little, if any, information about the issue and what is provided is often in the wrong place, or old and faded.
At Chatuchak Weekend market, the stand dedicated to informing people about the issue of ivory trade is often closed and is nowhere near the area of the market where ivory is sold — and as noted above, simply providing information is unlikely to actually change consumer behaviour.
Apart from Thailand, which countries are hot spots for illegal ivory trade?
The worst levels of poaching are taking place in Central Africa, but poaching levels are increasing across Africa.
Much of the ivory transits through East Africa, Southeast Asia or Hong Kong, with China and Thailand readily identified as the largest consumer markets within Asia, while the largest ivory markets within Africa are found in Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria. China has comprehensive laws regulating the market, but in Thailand the law that allows trade in ivory from domesticated elephants provides a means for laundering illegal ivory, mostly of African origin. At the last Cites meeting held in Bangkok in March 2013, eight countries, including Thailand, were identified as being key to this issue as either source countries for the ivory, transit countries where large amounts of ivory pass through on their way to the market or consumer countries where ivory is processed and sold.
These eight countries: China, Kenya, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Uganda, Tanzania and Vietnam, were asked to develop Ivory Action Plans in order to address this issue.
What’s the situation of elephant conservation around the world?
If the situation is not addressed, elephants may become extinct in Central Africa within decades. While Central Africa continues to display the highest levels of elephant poaching in any subregion, Mike analysis (Monitoring Illegal Killing of Elephants — a programme managed by Cites) indicates that all regions in Africa now have elephant poaching levels that are totally unsustainable and are likely leading to elephant populations being in decline.
The Asian Elephant is currently facing an even more serious predicament. As mention above, 20,000 African Elephants are being killed each year — a figure around twice the total population of Asian Elephants, both wild and domesticated, found in Thailand.
Habitat loss and human-elephant conflict are both serious threats, but an additional threat is the trafficking of live wild animals for use by some in the lucrative Thai tourism industry. In this case, the current laws, designed at a time when the main issue was to prevent theft of animals, concern the ownership and registration of domesticated elephants. Without changes to the current laws it will also be impossible to trace ivory from this source back to the domesticated elephants.
What will happen to the world if elephants become extinct?
I think the world would be an incredibly poorer and sadder place if elephants became extinct. I can’t imagine a world where these animals only exist in zoos or photographs, especially in Thailand, where elephants are such an important part of the culture and beliefs and perhaps even identity.