IVORY TRADE: A NEW THAI LAUNDRY

An elephant dies about every twenty minutes in Africa yet the main culprits still don’t act as if there is any urgency. China, the world’s biggest ivory market has announced it will ban its domestic ivory market and trade in a “timely” manner. It has been suggested this may be in a year’s time although phase outs and compensation are being discussed. Hong Kong states for the first time it is “open-minded” to calls for it to do the same. Thailand, although banning African ivory has set up a registration process which threatens to open up a massive ivory laundry.


Save the Elephants' David Daballen reports another poached elephant in Samburu, Kenya 2011 © Dave Currey / EIA


It’s been clear to me that ivory traders have outwitted conservationists, statisticians, scientists and the international community for at least thirty years. While I’m pleased to see cracks in the ivory trade armour, previous warnings of ending trade have filtered down to cause a rush to kill as many elephants as possible before the deadline. To move this ivory, traders need mechanisms to launder it into the major Chinese market.


Let’s look at history. An ivory control system devised by CITES in 1985 gave rise to two important ivory registrations: the first in Burundi for 89 tonnes and the second in Singapore for 270 tonnes.


These registered stocks became the basis of laundering poached ivory from 70,000 dead elephants annually until the 1989 ivory ban was finally agreed. The paperwork accompanying the registered ivory was worth more than the ivory itself. Its owners smuggled poached ivory, estimated to be ten times the registered amount, until a shipment was inspected. They could then produce a document claiming it was part of a legal stockpile. A Hong Kong police investigator told me at the time that the system must have been devised to deliberately enable smuggling.


More shocking than this is that in 2008 governments were persuaded by some of the same people (see my last blog), who knew well the evidence of history, to do it all over again with 102 tonnes of registered stockpiles sold to China and Japan. Now we have another poaching crisis across Africa.


Resilience, a collared matriarch, Samburu 2011 © Dave Currey / EIA


Since WWF has always been an ivory trade proponent and supported the 2008 sale I was extremely pleased to read of their very high profile campaign supported by Leonardo DiCaprio on Avaaz in 2013 to ban all ivory trade in Thailand. Their reason: “Criminals smuggle in illegally obtained African ivory, mix it in with legal Thai sources so no one can tell them apart, then get away with selling it on the open market.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.


A part of me wondered if WWF now opposed all ivory trade, but the linguistics of the petition bothered me. It described Thailand as the world’s largest unregulated ivory market, as if regulation might sort it all out. China is by far the biggest market for poached ivory, albeit regulated.


But surely having WWF running a campaign to ban all ivory trade in Thailand has to be good doesn’t it? Their size, resources and international influence could make a huge difference. The petition fronted by DiCaprio, along with other petitions garnered 1.5 million signatures. Still online, it explains in its first line “We did it!”


I’m afraid they didn’t.


Although the Prime Minister did pledge to end the trade her government was deposed in a coup d’etat in May 2014 and replaced by a military junta. Under pressure from CITES to draw up a National Ivory Action Plan, a mechanism CITES claims will help control the illegal ivory trade, Thailand submitted one in July 2014 which was revised in September 2014.


Acting on its plan the Thai government gained worldwide publicity by crushing around two tonnes of illegal ivory. It also changed legislation to prohibit the sale and trade of African ivory and passed the Elephant Ivory Act which in WWF’s own words is “aimed at regulating the legal market in ivory from domesticated, privately owned Asian elephants that requires owners and traders to register their ivory.” Note the familiar terminology.


I contacted the WWF Thailand spokesperson to find out their current policy, what they knew of the government’s intentions along with a few other questions. Her short reply suggested I ask the Thai government, except for a link to the WWF global site to answer my question regarding WWF’s position. Here she is quoted as saying “This event (the ivory crushing) aligns the commitment of the Thai government and the will of the Thai people with the global priority of stopping the illegal ivory trade.” No mention here of banning all ivory trade in Thailand just stopping the illegal trade. WWF has let the Thai government off the hook.


Orphaned elephant at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

© Dave Currey / EIA


The Thai registration of ivory from domestic elephants was completed in April 2015. Shockingly over 220 tonnes was registered by 44,000 people and clearly most of this is not from domestic elephants. It eerily reminded me of the tragic farce when traders moved ivory into Singapore prior to the 1986 registration to benefit from its legalisation. I understand this ivory has not been marked, checked or verified in any way to be from Thai domestic elephants. Traffic, WWF’s trade monitoring project, has congratulated Thailand over its new DNA forensic capabilities, but although they may be able to determine if it is African or Asian ivory, no DNA testing could tell if it was from domestic elephants without matching the ivory to specific animals. There are no signs of this ever happening.


I have heard from reliable sources this registered ivory is already being traded and I strongly suspect African elephants are already being killed to take advantage of this new ivory laundry. I am certain the 1.5 million signators to the 2013 petition will be surprised to read on WWF’s websiteif the new regulations do not succeed … then WWF will call for a full ban on the ivory trade in Thailand.” I thought they already had. No urgency there then.


Once again the traders are making fools of CITES, WWF, Traffic and all the proponents of ivory trade. China might ban trade, Hong Kong’s ivory laundry is thinking about it and a brand spanking new laundry opens up in Thailand. Traders seem to have lined everything up for a bumper few years of killing.


Richard Leakey, current Chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service and former director who oversaw the first Kenyan burn of ivory was quoted in 2011 “CITES is now anachronistic and a sham. It’s funded and controlled by the ivory trade - and should be put away. The very concept of trade in high-value wildlife species as a tool for conservation is completely untenable.”


The urgency for immediate action cannot be stressed enough. CITES is clearly not up to the job. Any country, organisation or individual who wants elephants to survive in the wild must join the 25 African countries who called last week for an immediate end to all ivory trade and sales internationally and domestically.


I would like to add “forever.”


© Dave Currey




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