World Getting Fed up with Thailand’s Exploding Ivory Trade

 | Tue 22 Jul 2014 16:51 ICT

On Friday, July 11, a 50-year-old elephant was murdered in the dead of night in an Ayutthaya elephant camp by three men who have recently been arrested. The gentle giant was poisoned and then had his tusks sawn off crudely and clumsily, which would have significantly lowered the value of the tusks on the black market. The three men had seen prison before for poisoning tigers at a zoo, but had been released to carry on with their preferred occupation of murdering animals. Sadly, the elephant known as Klao had to die for an estimated 60,000 baht.

Klao was considered a national treasure much like many elephants are purported to be around the country. He had marched in many royal parades and even starred in the 2004 film Alexander. WWF paints a contradictory parallel between Thailand’s national respect for their elephants and the booming ivory trade within the country: on the one hand, police and soldiers had to hold back over 400 people who threatened to attack the suspects when they attempted to do a re-enactment at the crime scene, but on the other hand, there are at least 120 outlets selling ivory in the capital city – double what there were just 18 months ago. Wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC also revealed a startling increase in the availability of ivory products, from 5,865 items to 14,512 items since January 2013. No wonder people are questioning Thailand’s loyalty to their beloved elephants.

A mahout with a young elephant at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai.

Ironically, Klao’s death took place just after CITES began a discussion in Geneva about the rampant illegal wildlife trade in South East Asia. The conclusion of that discussion was CITES threatening Thailand with the same warning it had shared just a year earlier: Stop the ivory trade, or face sanctions. That’s when WWF piped up for the umpteenth time, and declared that CITES should have put their foot down with Thailand once and for all – especially after last year’s global petition to shut down the ivory market, with 1.6 million signatures, was handed over to the Thai government, who have made little progress despite their promises. WWF pointed out Thailand’s numerous pledges to squash their illicit wildlife trade problem, and yet since January 2013, ivory sales and demand has rapidly risen, as the numbers above clearly show. According to WWF, suspending trade in all CITES goods from Thailand would have been long justified, as Thailand is also guilty of fuelling the constant assaults on African elephants by allowing ivory sales to remain legal. The organization now calls Thailand’s ivory market the largest unregulated ivory market in the world.

Thailand’s tight deadline (August 2015) means that unless they straighten out the situation, they’ll be facing a ban on trading any of the 35,000 trade items and species on CITES’ list. That would include orchids and exotic wood, which are important exports for Thailand, and this sort of highly restrictive ban would damage Thailand’s trade reputation with many countries around the world. The Kingdom is now being marked as the key offender in the “Gang of Eight” which make up eight countries, including China, that have faced international admonishment for their part in the ivory trade. CITES Chairman Oeystein Stoerkersen called Thailand “a sink” for African ivory and said that Thailand has gone for “years without any real action on the ground when it comes to controlling the illegal ivory market.”

An elephant gets a hug at the Chai Lai Orchid in Chiang Mai.

Klao lived at the Royal Elephant Kraal and Village, which was where the 4.9 ton bull had been chained to a tree near the Lop Buri River bank on the night of his murder. He was separated from his 30-strong elephant herd for being aggressive, and mahouts could only make patrol rounds on their motorbikes. At the time, Klao’s mahout Pan Sala-ngam had said, “I wonder what the hearts of the culprits are made of? How could they be so cruel to elephants like this?” He and his fellow mahouts protested that they could not protect their elephants without proper weapons, and the owner of the camp, Laithongrian Meepan, reminded the media that the NCPO had cracked down on the possession of firearms around the country. “Previously, mahouts were given rifles and patrolled at night to look out for elephant killers,” he said.

Laithongrian also spoke up about the laws surrounding these serious issues. He said that the fact convicted wildlife traffickers had been arrested again so soon showed that their punishment (of one and a half years in jail) was too lenient. He called for harsher penalties for wildlife traffickers if the situation was going to improve. “This elephant was right in the middle of the city, not in a forest! They have no fear of the law.” He said, urging the authorities to take the case very seriously, and saying that past criminals have rarely been punished. Pan agreed with him, saying “In the past there have been perpetrators stealing tusks from elephant enclosures in many provinces, but there haven’t been any arrests.”

For more information and to get involved, visit the WWF website, the CITES website, and read our Citylife article, The Price of Ivory. Do not allow elephants’ blood onto your hands by supporting the ivory trade, which means do not buy, promote, or sell ivory products, whether they are from Asian or African elephants.