Thailand has taken an important step towards ending its ivory trade, but it is only a beginning. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra promised last weekend to start working with the legislature to ban the trade in a speech at the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), which was attended by representatives from 178 countries. This was the first time a Thai official publicly pledged to ban the ivory trade.
Thailand currently permits the purchase and sale of ivory from domesticated local elephants. Yingluck said she would begin to act on her pledge with stronger local controls on Thailand’s internal trade and the flow of African ivory into her country by registering domestic elephants and ivory products. The next stage, she told the conference, would be to bring Thailand’s laws into line with international norms by ending the ivory trade altogether.
Yingluck said a ban would “help protect all forms of elephants including Thailand’s wild and domestic elephants and those from Africa.” An effective Thai ban on ivory could substantially reduce poaching since Thailand has one of the world’s largest ivory markets. In the last 14 months poachers killed over 32,000 elephants, more than at any time in recent decades. According to the BBC, “between 50 and 100 African elephants are killed every day for their ivory.”
These numbers confirm the World Wildlife Fund’s assertion that there is “a global poaching crisis that is leading to the slaughter of tens of thousands of elephants each year and fueling a global criminal trade in animal parts.” Though CITES outlaws the trade it is thriving in the unregulated markets of Thailand, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Thailand faces a long road to closing down its ivory trade. Yingluck’s speech was a start, but “the fight to stop wildlife crime and shut down Thailand’s ivory markets is not over,” says Carlos Drews of WWF. “Prime Minister Shinawatra now needs to provide a timeline for this ban and ensure that it takes place as a matter of urgency, because the slaughter of elephants continues.” Environmental Investigation Agency executive director Mary Rice agrees: “I’m not opening the Champagne yet.”
Rice has a point. The deputy director of Thailand’s Department of Parks and Wildlife said that banning the ivory trade is a long-term goal that might happen “step by step in the future — maybe.” That does not inspire confidence that Yingluck’s words will lead to new laws.
Thailand already prohibits the purchase and sale of ivory from wild elephants, but a loophole allowing trade in domesticated local elephant parts gives poachers plenty of room to do business by claiming all their ivory is local.
Even if Thailand implements the laws Yingluck promised, enforcement will be challenging. The Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program, Achim Steiner, said that wildlife trafficking
in a terrible way has become a trade and a business of enormous proportions — a billion-dollar trade in wildlife species that is analogous to that of the trade in drugs and arms. This is not a small matter. It is driven by a conglomerate of crime syndicates across borders.
CITES Director-General John Scanlon agreed that criminal syndicates smuggle animal parts across borders, and said that their killing of African elephants and rhinos is one of CITES’ main concerns. But he is optimistic about shutting the law-breakers down. He said that the world already knows how to stop the criminals; “we now need the collective will.”
Unfortunately, CITES members rejected a bid to end the ivory trade on Thursday.