Thailand tries to corral the stampede for ivory in Asia

Seizures of African ivory by Thai officials increased hundredfold last year.

When the fresh elephant tusk arrives wrapped in a rice sack, Pi Banyat grunts approvingly. Three feet long and shaped like a crescent moon, the smooth, creamy tusk once belonged to a male Thai elephant that died of old age – or at least that's how Mr. Pi, a third-generation ivory trader, tells it.

The price? $1,220, or $55 a pound, which is roughly one-third of what it will fetch once carved into trinkets and sold in Thailand's booming tourist shops. Pi's bestsellers include chunky bangles, Chinese-style Buddhas, and carved elephants – the smallest the size of a fingernail, and yours for only 30 cents.

The fresh tusk notwithstanding, most of the items sold in this village 130 miles north of Bangkok and home to around 200 carvers aren't made of Thai ivory, which is hard to find. Instead, traders buy illegal African tusks, often smuggled by hand through Bangkok airport, and carve them into trinkets to feed Asia's voracious demand for ivory.

International trade in Asian and African ivory was banned under a 1989 treaty signed by Thailand, but Pi says he's not worried about a crackdown. Where jobs are scarce, conservation concerns have often taken a backseat to the economic needs of the people.

"The government knows all about our business but they don't stop us because people here need the work," he shrugs.

But conservationists say such attitudes are slowly starting to change as Thai authorities wake up to the scale of the problem.

A recent survey of Asian markets by Save the Elephants, a Kenyan nonprofit group, found that Thailand was by far the biggest ivory market in Southeast Asia. That isn't hurting only African herds. Elephant populations in Southeast Asia, Nepal, and Sri Lanka are dropping fast, to 10,550 in 2000 from an estimated 17,440 in the late 1980s, according to the survey.

This decline shows the reach of the ivory trade in Thailand and elsewhere in the region. Aside from Thailand, with some 2,500 wild elephants, only Sri Lanka, Burma, and Laos now have significant wild populations.

Loophole makes it difficult

A legal loophole exists for the sale of ivory from domesticated Thai elephants, which are used as beasts of burden and, increasingly, as tourist attractions. Their owner is allowed to sell their tusks to traders such as Pi, provided that the processed ivory is sold only in Thailand.

Forestry officials say this loophole makes it difficult to nab traders and shop owners who often forge documents of ownership for domestic elephants.

"It's hard to prove that the ivory is smuggled. When we find it cut into pieces it's hard to identify," says a forestry official, who declined to be named.

By some estimates, Thailand's trafficking of endangered species and wildlife products is second only to the country's drugs trade in illicit revenues.

While some rare products are smuggled out of the country to order, others are hawked openly to the 10 million tourists who visit Thailand each year, many of them Asians who have long prized ivory. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Thailand says tiger and bear parts, rare snakes, and crocodile skins, as well as ivory trinkets, are sold in luxury hotel shops in Bangkok, even though Thailand has banned their sale.

WWF Thailand is lobbying hoteliers to crack down on illegal wildlife parts and is trying to promote a certification program for items such as purses made from farm-raised crocodiles. Since March, the group has also used radio spots to promote a 24-hour hotline for reporting shops that break the law; eight shop-owners have been arrested so far.

"We would like the hotel owners and shopkeepers to allow us to certify their products, but first they have to get rid of the illegal ones," says campaign director Sawan Sangbunlung.

Problem throughout Asia

Thailand isn't the only Asian country with a hand in the illegal ivory trade. Singapore recently seized six tons of African ivory concealed in a shipment to Japan, which uses ivory for making name stamps. The ivory reportedly came from Zambia, one of five African countries that along with Japan want a partial lifting of the global ban. That ban was imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in 1989 in response to massive poaching of African elephants.

In Thailand, seizures of African ivory have risen over the last year to 1300 pounds, up from only 11 pounds in the previous twelve months. Forestry department officials say they are now trying to educate customs officers to spot other banned wildlife products.

Campaigners say it's hard to know if the intercepted ivory reflects better law enforcement or rising volumes of illegal imports.

"You assume that a lot gets through, so when we see how much is being caught and stopped, how much is this is just the tip of the iceberg?" asks Robert Mather, country director of WWF Thailand.

Back in Phayuha Khiri, Pi shows off a pair of wrinkled African tusks inside the family's tidy house. He says many buyers prefer the color and texture of African ivory, and aren't worried about breaking the law.

Asked if he's aware that African elephants are endangered, Pi nods. So, what would he do if the ivory ever ran out? "Find another job," he says, with a wan smile.

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