Image: Ivory artifact
Sakchai Lalit  /  AP
A Thai carver makes a final check on an ivory-carved Buddha image. Thailand allows some trade in ivory from domestic sources, but that law is seen as providing a way into the country of illegal tusks from Africa.
updated 6/19/2009 11:06:57 AM ET 2009-06-19T15:06:57

Thailand's government has failed to crack down on one of the world's largest markets of illegal ivory, allowing vendors to openly sell products that come from African elephants, a wildlife tracking group said in a report released Friday.

The group TRAFFIC, which monitors trade in wildlife, said that judging by recent seizures of ivory imports and exports and several surveys it has done since 2006, Thailand has surpassed traditional hotspots like Japan and China.

Hundreds of venues from five-star hotels to the popular Chatuchak weekend market in the capital, Bangkok — which has by far the biggest markets in the country — were found to be selling tens of thousands of items, from pricey carvings of religious deities to cheaper bangles, belt buckles and knife handles.

Much of the illegal ivory is smuggled from central African countries to workshops outside Bangkok, the British-based conservation group said. Merchants in the capital and to a lesser degree tourist cities like Chiang Mai sell the ivory products to locals as well as foreign tourists, benefiting from loopholes in current laws that make it hard to crack down on the trade.

Some of the items are also exported to markets in Europe and the United States.

Black market"Thailand has consistently been identified as one of the world's top five countries most heavily implicated in the illicit ivory trade, but shows little sign of addressing outstanding issues," said Tom Milliken, of TRAFFIC, which oversees a global monitoring program, Elephant Trade Information.

"Thailand needs to reassess its policy for controlling its local ivory markets as currently it is not implementing international requirements to the ongoing detriment of both African and Asian Elephant populations," Milliken said.

He said the booming Thai market is endemic of a larger problem in Southeast Asia, where countries including Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines have become key transit points for ivory that is bound for markets in China.

TRAFFIC recommended that Thailand boost its regulation of the domestic ivory market, and amend a law that allows sales of domestic ivory. It also called on the government to streamline often-conflicting legislation related to the trade and to train Thai Customs officials in identifying illegal ivory.

"The Thai government needs to crack down on this serious illegal activity and stop allowing people to abuse the law," said Colman O'Criodain, the World Wide Fund For Nature's analyst on wildlife trade issues. "A good first step would be to put in place a comprehensive registration system for all ivory in trade and for live elephants."

An official with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, who could not be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the report would be discussed at a government subcommittee on ivory trade control next week.

Image: Confiscated tusks
Sakchai Lalit  /  AP
These tusks were confiscated by Thailand in 2002.
The official acknowledged there was a "problem" with ivory sales in Bangkok but that it was hard to regulate since it can be difficult to differentiate between ivory that comes from domestic elephants and those from Africa. Some shops selling ivory items are registered with the government but he acknowledged many are not.

The Thai official said the government was trying to address the problem partly through the passage of a new law called the Elephant Act, which would toughen regulations on the import and export of elephants and elephant products, including ivory.

Shops or stalls selling ivory products in Bangkok are widespread. A visit to River City mall, a popular haunt of tourists and antique collectors, turned up 10 shops selling ivory carvings, necklaces or cigarette holders. All the merchants interviewed insisted their ivory came from Thailand or Myanmar, a claim disputed by Milliken who said the region doesn't have enough elephants to support the industry.

At Chatuchak market, the owner of the Ethnic Tribe jewelry stall, Chotika Wongchan, was more forthcoming. She acknowledged she bought African ivory in bulk from another trader in the market and that her brother then crafted it into the rings and belt buckles she had on display.

"As a jeweler, it's no problem because we don't sell that much," she said.

Thailand is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which banned trade in ivory in 1989 after a wholesale slaughter of African elephants by poachers in the 1970s and 1980s. But Thailand, unlike China and Japan, has done little to enforce the trade ban.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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