By Mike Ives
Southeast Asia is a haven for ivory smugglers. For now, government efforts to stop the flow of contraband fall short.
Naomi Doak walked into a pop-up jewelry shop in Chatuchak Market, a weekend shopping bazaar in Bangkok, Thailand, and pointed at the thickest ivory bangle in the store, whose price tag said $800. Necklaces hung on the makeshift walls, and a glass case displayed several ivory bracelets under bright white lights. Doak asked a shopkeeper where the ivory was from. “Thailand,” he said. Doak, an expert on the global wildlife trade, nodded politely. But after eyeballing the bangle’s diameter, she knew that most likely it had come from one of the African elephant species, which tend to have larger tusks than their Asian cousins. There was a very good chance the piece of jewelry came from an elephant that had been poached illegally.
No one knows the precise contours of the ivory trade, in part because professional criminals control so much of it. Yet data from market surveys and ivory seizures indicates that vast amounts of the world’s illegal ivory pass through Thailand and a few other places in Southeast Asia: Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Some of it stays in the transit countries. Much of it continues on to the Chinese mainland or the Chinese territory of Hong Kong.
A central problem, wildlife advocates say, is that both Thailand and China have laws that permit legal ivory trading. That gives smugglers and shopkeepers a perfect cover to leak African ivory into legal shops – and then pass it off as Asian. It can be impossible to tell the difference between African and Asian ivory species without testing a specimen’s DNA in a forensics laboratory, particularly when a bangle’s diameter is small. But an official in the Thai government, speaking anonymously for fear of retribution, told me that more than 90 percent of the ivory seized by Thai law enforcement officers and tested in labs is African.
On a Sunday afternoon in March, I spent a few hours shadowing Naomi Doak as she surveyed Chatuchak’s ivory stocks. Doak is a friendly Australian who speaks Thai, and she held a color coded map of the market. She had been there dozens of times before. Even so, Chatuchak has hundreds of stalls, and sometimes it took a few wrong turns down narrow market corridors before we found the vendors she was after.
It was several weeks into a campaign by Thailand’s government to register all of the country’s existing ivory stocks. Doak said she wasn’t sure how the new laws applied to legal ivory sales. Ivory vendors, it seemed, were required to register their ivory stocks like everyone else. But there still were no clear guidelines on how ivory sales themselves would be regulated. The vendors didn’t seem sure, either. And, perhaps for that reason, there was far less ivory on display than Doak had seen only three weeks before.
At one of the market’s largest ivory shops, where the staff spoke Chinese, we saw a woman buying several ivory bangles then stuffing them into plastic bags. In exchange, she handed over a thick stack of 1,000 baht ($33) notes. Doak said that was an unusually big purchase, which perhaps indicated that some consumers were buying up ivory before the new ivory regulations took full effect. The limbo period would last a few more weeks. Even Doak, a veteran wildlife-trafficking investigator, was unsure how – or whether – the new regulations would work.
“If the price of them stopping to sell is selling off everything they have? I can’t decide how I feel about that,” Doak told me. “It makes me a little hopeful, but definitely suspicious.”
Bangkok, the Thai capital and an urban area of 10 million, is Southeast Asia’s hub for African ivory smuggling. It has a seaport and an airport serving 38 million international passengers a year. Both are places where even large containers of ivory tusks can slip past customs agents. Thailand is also home to an emerging middle class that values ivory jewelry as both an emblem of national heritage and a status symbol. And, of course, it’s a major destination for tourists, some of whom are in the market for something exotic.
Chatuchak is one of at least 54 places in Bangkok selling ivory bangles, according to the wildlife advocacy group TRAFFIC. Doak, a former TRAFFIC researcher, says it may be the largest ivory market in Southeast Asia by volume and turnover. In a year and a half of surveying its ivory stocks, she and her colleagues consistently documented hundreds of ivory bangles on sale there. In one three-day period, Doak told me, they counted 2,000 bangles – equivalent to around 65 feet of elephant tusks. She says the primary buyers of the market’s ivory products are Thai citizens and Chinese tourists, who in recent years have become the number one visitors to the country.
As African elephant populations dwindle, TRAFFIC and other wildlife groups are pressuring Thailand, China, and the other Southeast Asian transit countries to do more to stop the illegal ivory that courses within and across their borders. In 2013, CITES, the international body tasked with protecting the world’s wild fauna and flora, instructed those nations to draft “ivory action” plans outlining the reforms they planned to implement. Earlier this year, Thailand and China complied by passing regulations designed to stop ivory smuggling and close loopholes in their respective legal ivory markets.
Doak says the changes are somewhat encouraging. Still, she adds, the ivory action plans are deeply flawed because they are not independently monitored. In both Thailand and China authorities have yet to outline clear, workable enforcement mechanisms for busting and punishing ivory smugglers. “If no one’s ever held accountable,” Doak says, “then the system is pointless.”
If China and Thailand have two of world’s largest ivory end-markets, why does ivory smuggling happen elsewhere, in several other Southeast Asian countries? One common explanation is that smugglers have sought ways of getting around increasingly tight customs enforcement at mainland Chinese border crossings. Conveniently for smugglers, a third of global shipping traffic already passes through the South China Sea, so there are endless opportunities to stash ivory in containers headed for Southeast Asian ports that are close to the Chinese and Thai markets. The ivory is easily concealed within shipments of dried fish, e-waste, charcoal, and even sunflower seeds.
Brendan Moyle, an economist at New Zealand’s Massey University who studies wildlife trafficking, says ivory smuggling tactics are essentially business decisions. Because ivory is bulky and must travel thousands of miles, smugglers are usually keen to ship it as cheaply as possible. And when shipping costs plummet, as they did following the global financial crisis of 2008-09, the incentive to ship ever-larger quantities increases dramatically. In a forthcoming paper in the journal Ecological Economics, Moyle analyzed ivory seizure data from the Elephant Trade Information System, a CITES-affiliated database. He found that, between 2008 and 2011, the number of ivory seizures weighing more than 1,000 kilograms rose roughly eightfold, whereas seizures of smaller amounts rose only marginally. More....