National Geographic News
Photo of a baby Asian elephant and adult members of its group.

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.

Photograph by Steve Winter, National Geographic Creative

Christina Russo

for National Geographic

Published July 9, 2014

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.

Follow Christina Russo on Twitter.

Tanmay Sharma
Tanmay Sharma

What’s stopping Thailand? They need to understand these serious issues and look for building better future. Thailand is a lovely country home to popular White elephants, which drew tourist from across the world. They need to protect them.

Dipanjan Mitra
Dipanjan Mitra

we have seriously made a ridicule of this planet. a complete joke out of this globe.

Tory Braden
Tory Braden

Though Thailand is a huge culprit in this holocaust, to deescalate China is poking a head in the sand. I question Thailand as 2nd to China's insatiable appetite for ivory. And with China's leaders such as Zhao Shucong licensing its massive state-sanctioned carving factories, the carvers fuel the trade. The poached tusks would have no where to go if the carvers did not buy them. The carved creations would have nowhere to go if China did not allow the selling of them, or do better enforcement of its own black market. As in the 80s when Japan fueled the trade, now it is China, and China of all countries should not be let off the hook for its 1st place status in this holocaust. #ChinaStopCarving

Avee Tsofa-Holmes
Avee Tsofa-Holmes

Kenya is doing all it can to fight this Cruel, Barbaric,Illegal Trade. The Game reserve Rangers risk their Lives daily, with many being Killed by these evil Poachers. Unfortunately the Rangers are not allowed to Shoot to Kill these Evil people. The Rangers are 100% Dedicated to their Work, knowing that each Day could be their Last. The Government needs to employ more Rangers and enforce Stricter Sentences on these Poachers and also the Organisers of these Crimes.

Mayeso Gwedela
Mayeso Gwedela

20,000 to 50,000 annually? Will there be any elephants left in the next decade? What`s the current estimate on their population in the wild worldwide?

Andrew Wyatt
Andrew Wyatt

@Mayeso Gwedela Ms Russo is using the wildly exaggerated and unsubstantiated number being used by the animal rights industry as her high end of 50,000. CITES/MIKE just came out with the official numbers for 2013 at approximately 20,000. 2012 was about 22,000. Both down off the peak of 25,000 in 2011. The truth is bad enough. No need for Ms Russo to embellish.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy moderator expert

Hi @Andrew Wyatt @Mayeso Gwedela - certainly there is some difference of opinion and/or data within the conservation community, but we have added the link to the document that was the source for the 50,000 in the estimate range. For your convenience, here it is: Thank you very much for helping us realize we had inadvertently removed that link!

Mayeso, in response to your original question, please visit our A Voice for Elephants blog, which has regular stories by journalists, conservationists and scientists about the poaching crisis in Africa:


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