BANGKOK, Mar 21 – For many years Southeast Asia had a bountiful supply of elephants to satisfy Thailand\’s ivory traffickers, but the decimation of the species has seen them turn to Africa for their plunder.
The more than 1,600 tusks seized since the beginning of 2009 by Thai customs indicate that more than 800 elephants were slaughtered to feed a murky and voracious international market.
"Thailand is still ranked number one" in the ivory traffic rankings, said Chris Shepherd, deputy manager for Southeast Asia at wildlife protection group Traffic.
International trade in ivory was banned in 1989, but seizures have risen dramatically in the past five years.
Experts say the trade is passing through organised networks often linked to the smuggling of rare animals from Mozambique, Tanzania or Kenya.
"When you order ivory for decoration, one elephant will be killed — the killer is demand," said Lieutenant Colonel Adtapon Sudsai, investigation chief at the Natural Resource and Environment Crime Suppression Department.
Some of the ivory imported — sometimes delivered without even being cleaned of the elephant\’s blood — is destined for the Thai market.
Certain "businessmen or senior government officers" in the kingdom like to hang large mammals\’ tusks on their walls as a symbol of their power, notes Seri Thaijongrak, director of the Royal Thai Customs\’ investigation bureau.
Tourists also enjoy looking at the jewels and small animals carved by specialist craftsmen in northern Nakhon Sawan province, who worked traditionally with the ivory of Thailand\’s native elephants.
Thailand\’s ivory sculpting tradition started in the late 19th century when an estimated 100,000 elephants roamed the kingdom. Since then most have been lost to poachers and the clearing of their forest habitat.
Now just a few thousand remain — many of them working in the tourism industry — and the ivory traffickers have turned to the pachyderms\’ African cousins to meet considerable Asian demand.
Benefiting from its location, Thailand exports much of the ivory, rough or carved, to China — where it is traditionally used in medicinal powders — and Japan. But some also ends up in the United States and Europe.
Critics say the authorities need to take tougher action.
"We are not seeing significant prosecutions," said Justin Gosling, of Interpol\’s environmental crimes department in the Asia-Pacific region.
"Seizures must be met with prosecutions, and not (just) prosecution of the transporters, poachers and consumers, but the key people controlling this trade," he added.
Experts are pessimistic about justice being done, with a lack of communication between Bangkok and relevant African authorities and inadequate training of the customs and police officers.
"Wildlife crime in these parts of the world still is not seen as a priority," said Shepherd.
When financial means exists, they are on the wrong side of the battle, experts say, with much remaining to be done against corruption.
"In order to smuggle these huge quantities, there need to be corrupt officials involved in this," insists Gosling.
The local press recently reported on the disappearance of ivory stocks in a customs warehouse, an incident that does not appear isolated.
But even the most optimistic admit that the fight is a difficult one.
The ivory confiscated by customs since 2009 is worth nearly 250 million baht (nearly six million euros), and such success means the traffickers "will probably change their tactic," said Gosling.
In anticipation of such a switch, customs officials — who recently made seizures at a Bangkok airport — have been reinforcing controls at ports, said Seri — but he warned it was hard to keep up.
"We are always one step behind them," he said. "Maybe many steps behind."