Thai customs officials announced Monday one of the largest seizures of elephant ivory in transit in Southeast Asia. Police seized 739 tusks (about four tons worth) as it sat at the port of Bangkok awaiting shipment to Laos.
“Moving a shipment of four tons halfway around the world is not a trivial undertaking.” said Richard Thomas, global communications coordinator in London for TRAFFIC International, which monitors trade in rare and endangered wildlife.
“Movements of this kind are very, very strongly indicative of organized crime.”
Sadly the latest seizure in Thailand is the most by weight in the kingdom’s history according to a statement from Thai Customs. While extremely significant it is not the largest ever in the region. Singapore seized 7.2 tons in 2002 and Malaysia authorities seized six tons of ivory in 2012.
Thai authorities say the ivory was hidden in sacks of beans and originated in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its likely final destination was the markets of China.
Thai authorities have stepped up their efforts to seize illegal ivory shipments after the global regulator CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) informed the kingdom that all of its wildlife business faces severe and wide-ranging sanctions if it does not curb trade in tusks on its soil by August of this year.
Registered ivory from domesticated Thai elephants can be sold legally in the country. The loophole is blamed for making it easier for poached African ivory to be laundered through Thailand.
In addition to the crackdowns on smuggling, Thailand enacted a new elephant ivory law that requires ivory collectors to declare their possessions to authorities by April 21st to avoid a hefty fine of up to 3 million baht. Since the law came into force on Jan 22, the public has been cooperating to disclose and register their assets. Between 500-700 people have come to report their possessions daily
More than 22,000 ivory collectors, including well-known politicians and businesspeople, have reported about 150 tonnes of their ivory items to authorities as the legal deadline to declare the ivory assets approaches.
Many of the items reported are pairs of ancient elephant tusks handed down for generations and some of the tusks are believed to be more than 100 years old
“The Thai authorities are certainly to be congratulated on making this very important seizure. But it does underline just how serious the nature of this illegal activity that is going on is,” said Thomas.
Environmentalists say 20,000 of the remaining 500,000 remaining African elephants were killed in 2013 – primarily poached for their ivory to meet demand in Asia.
China is estimated to be the destination for as much as 70 percent of the illegal ivory. For many modern middle class and upper class Chinese, ivory objects are believed to bring good luck or be a way to display status.
China has yet to meaningfully tackle the trade in endangered wildlife and instead largely ignores the issue due to cultural and historical reasons. This issue will continue to be a contentious one as China emerges as dominant player in global politics.