Global Wildlife Summit: Fight Against Illegal Ivory Stalled in Thailand

Thailand remains the world’s largest unregulated market for ivory.

A baby Asian elephant stands with adults in Myanmar (Burma). A new report says that Thailand is capturing wild elephants in Myanmar for the tourism industry.

Many of the countries involved in the illegal trade of elephant ivory have made positive steps toward stemming the crisis—except for Thailand, conservation experts announced this week. (Read "Blood Ivory" in National Geographic magazine.)

The Southeast Asian country has not done enough to hamper black market sales of ivory, and it remains the largest unregulated market for ivory in the world, according to officials with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which is holding its 65th Standing Committee Meeting in Geneva this week.

The Standing Committee for CITES, an international treaty created in 1973 to protect wildlife against overexploitation, holds regular meetings attended by nations that have signed the treaty, intergovernmental agencies, and wildlife conservation nonprofits.

Conservationists worldwide are urgently working to combat the massive trade in ivory and the slaughter of elephants, which are being killed in Africa at a rate of 20,000 to 50,000 annually. The animals are classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. (Related: "Efforts to Curb Ivory Trafficking Spreading, but Killing Continues.")

At a 2013 meeting in Bangkok, CITES officials singled out eight countries as instrumental in fueling the illegal ivory trade, either as suppliers, transporters, or consumers: China, Kenya, Malaysia, the Philippines, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganda, and Vietnam. (See a graphic of elephant poaching in Africa.)

The officials demanded that the "Gang of Eight," as they called these countries, outline specific action plans to address the ivory trade—or potentially face trade sanctions.

This week, experts deemed that seven of the eight countries had made positive progress.

"Each of the eight countries were given time to explain what additional thing they had done [regarding the ivory trade]," said Tom De Meulenaer, CITES's senior scientific support officer. "But the country that was most heavily critiqued for lack of movement and implementation was Thailand." (Get more elephant news on the blog A Voice for Elephants.)

"Thailand is not moving as it should," he said. "The Standing Committee has agreed to take measures. I do believe Thailand will now be more closely monitored than ever before."

CITES has a compliance mechanism built in, which means that it can impose trade sanctions on countries that aren't in compliance.

Lack of Legislation

"Thailand's lack of progress is both political and legislative," noted Paul Todd, director of international policy and program planning at the nonprofit International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

"Thailand doesn't have the legislation it needs to regulate its domestic ivory market, let alone guard against illegal international trade," he said. "It basically has an unregulated market because it claims that all their ivory comes from captive elephants, which isn't possible."

Other Gang of Eight countries at least have better legislation on their books, he said. though there are varying degrees of enforcement.

According to a report released July 2 by the nonprofit TRAFFIC, the number of ivory items for sale has nearly tripled in the past 18 months. In January 2013, 61 retail outlets were found selling ivory in previously identified locations around Bangkok. But by May 2014, the same locations had 120 retail outlets selling ivory.

Another report recently released by TRAFFIC shows that Thailand is capturing wild elephants for the tourism trade; most are taken from Myanmar (Burma).

According to Todd, representatives from Thailand attending CITES disagreed with the assessment of the country's progress. But none of the other country representatives came to Thailand's defense.

Thailand's officials at the CITES meeting were asked for comment but had not responded by the time of publication.

As for the improving countries, there was consensus that Kenya had made major strides in addressing ivory poaching within its borders.

Kenya's government "acknowledges that the ivory trade is organized crime that is financing horrific attacks by terrorists," said Paula Kahumbu, a Kenya-based wildlife conservationist with the nonprofit WildlifeDirect.

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