Thailand Promises to End Its Ivory Trade—Should We Believe Them?

Up and down Thailand, more than 5,000 stores and boutiques sell dead elephant tusk to tourists.

A one week old baby Asian elephant is seen next to its mother in the Budapest zoo on February 21, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

Apr 12, 2013· 1 MIN READ
Joanna writes about environment and energy for the NYT, Popular Science, OnEarth Magazine, and more.

It has been almost a quarter of a century since cross-border trade in ivory was outlawed by the Convention on International Trade in Species (CITES). So why is it that just last year nearly one out of every 17 wild elephants in Africa was killed for its ivory? Didn't we solve that problem a long time ago?

The legal domestic trade of ivory in Thailand and China has to end if we are to have any hope of saving the species," said Thornton.

Maybe, but only for about eight years, while the ban was strictly enforced. And then CITES sanctioned the auction of millions of dollars of stockpiled ivory in a handful of African countries and poaching re-exploded under the shelter of the new legal ivory. In addition, the CITES ban did nothing to curb domestic trade in ivory, which the organization has no power to control. So while it might not be legal to import ivory into China, once it is there, it can be sold freely and for immense amounts of money.

In 2011, Kenya took the dramatic step of burning $16 million worth of confiscated ivory to demonstrate their commitment to stoping the trade. While it's not easy to watch that much money go up in smoke, especially in a developing country, many conservationists agree that there is simply no way to sell ivory in a sustainable way.

"As far as I'm concerned, the debate about commercializing trade in species to help conserve them is over," said Allan Thornton, President of the Environmental Investigative Agency. "We have been investigating the ivory trade for 23 years and we don't see any evidence that either the international or domestic trade in ivory can be regulated. When ivory is sold, elephants die."

For these reasons, Thornton and like-minded conservationists cheered when Thailand announced at the last meeting of CITES in Bangkok in March 2013, that they would start the legislative process to ban the domestic trade of ivory in Thailand.

Currently in Thailand it's perfectly legal to sell ivory from domestic elephants. But the numbers just don't add up. Experts estimate that Thailand might legitimately have about 2,000 pounds of ivory to sell within the country, but Thai border authorities confiscate over ten tons of ivory being smuggled out of the country each year. Clearly something's amiss.

"The legal domestic trade of ivory in Thailand and China has to end if we are to have any hope of saving the species," said Thornton. "We need a complete ban on the sale of ivory both inside countries and between nations. Then, any movement of ivory will be illegal and there won't be any loopholes. We can finally put all that money we're spending in an attempt to regulate the trade into conservation efforts that work."

Thailand has given no timeline for when the legislation will take affect. Meanwhile, China's illegal ivory trade is estimated to be at least three times as large as Thailand's.