By Paul Carsten
Ivory is easy to find on the stalls of Chatuchak Market and River City mall in Bangkok. On display at just one shop are hundreds of kilograms of carved elephant tusk, unthinkable in most capitals but freely and legitimately for sale in Thailand.
As many as 30,000 elephants were slaughtered globally last year, environmental groups say, and populations are rapidly dwindling, with poachers undeterred by a ban on the international ivory trade in existence since 1989.
Thailand allows its nationals to trade in ivory from elephants that have died of natural causes inside its borders. But animal activists say the system is abused and ivory from Africa and elsewhere is "laundered" through the country.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) holds a conference in Bangkok from March 3 to 14 and - to the embarrassment of the hosts - environmental groups such as World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and TRAFFIC plan to table a motion calling for sanctions against Thailand.
"One of the reasons Thailand is being hit so hard in the CITES conference is, if you look at the numbers of domestic elephants and the numbers of Thailand's ivory carvers, it doesn't add up," said William Schaedla, director of Southeast Asia for TRAFFIC, an NGO for monitoring wildlife trade.
TRAFFIC estimates the country's elephant population and the natural death rate would provide only 8.4 kg (18.5 pounds) of ivory per registered carver a year.
But poor enforcement and regulation mean Thai merchants can lay their hands on much larger quantities. After the 1989 ban, countries were supposed to inventory their pre-existing stockpiles so CITES could keep tabs on them. Thailand never did, animal rights groups say.
"There's an undisclosed amount of ivory in the country, so essentially a bottomless pit to launder through," said Schaedla.
Thai ivory is supposed to be certified, but according to Schaedla this involves an easily forged slip of paper that the government doesn't bother to track, meaning African ivory can easily enter the market. More....