By the Blouin News Business staff

Thailand cracks down on illegal ivory in renewed global effort

by in Africa, Asia-Pacific.

Thai customs officers carry confiscated elephant tusks during a press conference at the Customs Bureau in Bangkok on April 27, 2015. PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images

Thai customs officers carry confiscated elephant tusks in Bangkok, 4/27/15. PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, Thai officials announced that they had seized three tons of illegal ivory hidden in a shipment from Kenya two days earlier. The 511 elephant tusks, worth $6 million, were bound for neighboring Laos. The previous week, Thailand made its largest seizure of illegal ivory ever: four tons from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The trade in ivory has been banned by international treaty since 1989 after voracious demand, particularly in Asia, led to mass slaughtering of elephants for their tusks. For example, the elephant population in Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve dropped by 67% between 2009 and 2013, from 39,000 to just 13,000. (The Selous herd numbered over 100,000 during the 1970s.) On average, nearly 100 elephants are killed every day worldwide for their ivory, with a total of more than 103,000 killed since January 2012. At this rate, wild elephant populations in Africa will be extinct within the next two decades.

The drastic fall in their numbers will not only thin out or eliminate elephant populations, but will harm the livelihoods of people living nearby, too. The ongoing slaughter of elephants threatens safari tourism in Africa, which in Tanzania is worth $2 billion per year and employs 20% of the workforce. The world may be reaching a turning point, however, as more publicity and resources are put to curbing ivory supply and demand.

Thailand is a major ivory destination, but this year the government has started cracking down due to external pressure. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) threatened to impose an international wildlife trade ban on member state Thailand if the country failed to rein in the illegal ivory trade. Accordingly, the action plan Bangkok submitted to CITES included a new elephant ivory law that is being vigorously enforced. On April 22, the government announced that 38,000 ivory collectors throughout the country have declared about 180 tons of ivory objects to authorities since January 22. This was not done out of a new-found public concern for elephant conservation, but rather to avoid major penalties. Those possessing undeclared ivory will face a fine of up to roughly $91,000, and ivory shop owners who do not report their inventories will face a fine up to twice that amount, and/or three years in prison. A special unit will be set up to burn ivory items handed in by collectors.

Other countries are also increasing their anti-ivory efforts, albeit from different baselines. China, the world’s largest importer of smuggled tusks, came under heavy criticism for a U.N.-approved one-time legal purchase of 68 tons of African ivory in 2008. The move was made to end the black market for ivory in China by allowing controlled releases from government stockpiles, but critics say it actually stimulated demand enormously and broadened the black market. However, in late February, China instituted a one-year ban on ivory purchases, which is a step in the right direction.

Meanwhile, several African countries have been doing high-publicity burns of seized ivory stockpiles. In March, Kenya burned 15 tons of ivory, and Ethiopia burned over six tons. However, tightening the supply has recently pushed ivory prices to an all-time high of $2,000 per kilo. Meaning elephants remain lucrative targets for poachers, even if they can only smuggle out smaller amounts than before. But with continued pressure, poaching can be driven down to levels lower than elephant population growth, and hopefully the world can witness an elephant comeback in the next few decades.