It is no easy thing to tell a friend that he or she has a serious problem. Telling a whole room full of friends while simultaneously enjoying their hospitality is even harder. As a conservationist with strong ties to Thailand, this is the position I find myself in at CITES.
My organisation, TRAFFIC, has provided technical support, legal advice and funding for work against illegal wildlife trade for more than three decades. We have taken on the problem both independently, and in close collaboration with WWF. A lot of these efforts have gone into elephant related issues, and a lot have gone into working with Thailand specifically to end ivory smuggling.
Nonetheless Thailand is one of three countries that we believe is failing to address the global illegal trade in ivory. The other two, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are ivory suppliers. Thailand is an ivory consumer, processor and re-exporter.
Elephants face a global crisis. Records from African range countries show poaching for ivory on the rise, with illegal killing now at levels not seen for over a decade. In fact, poaching levels are now so high, that elephants in Africa are now facing net declines; deaths are happening too quickly for new births to replace casualties.
Concurrently, ivory seizures by government agencies around the world are at their highest in 16 years. Interdictions by customs officers are frequently enormous; cargo containers packed with many tonnes of sawn tusks are stopped with alarming regularity.
Their volume and frequency attests not only to an elephant death toll in the tens of thousands, but also to the sad fact that border-based enforcement alone will not end the crisis.
No database of ivory objects
Thailand is both a chief receiver and a major manufacturing home for illegal ivory products. Thailand’s customs officials are empowered to seize illegal ivory at ports of entry, but the country itself lacks a necessary legal framework to prevent it from being bought and sold once it is inside the country.
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Thai laws regarding elephants involve multiple ministries, and no single government agency or office has complete jurisdiction. Some laws conflict, owing to the fact that wild elephants in Thailand are classified differently than their captive counterparts.
Tusks from wild elephants may not be traded, but those from captive elephants may be sold by the animals’ owners. Ostensibly, such sales are a reasonable thing to allow, but in practice the provenance of “domesticated” elephant ivory in Thailand is seldom questioned.
Thailand lacks a credible live elephant traceability and registration system, much less one for ivory that purportedly derives from legal captive elephants. Thailand’s ivory stockpiles have never been properly inventoried, and no national database of ivory objects exists.
Also, Thailand’s domestic elephants produce comparatively small quantities of ivory. Female Asian elephants do not have tusks, and male Asian elephants tend to have smaller tusks than their African counterparts. All of these factors make it highly doubtful that the ivory seen on Thailand’s open market is generated locally.
Other Asian nations have implemented means for controlling ivory sales. In China and Japan, for example, raw ivory stocks have been inventoried comprehensively and stockpiles have been reported to the CITES Secretariat, to help restrict entry of new ivory into their markets.
In China, the system also includes tight controls on ivory sales. Government registration certificates must accompany the sale of all worked ivory items. Sales in ivory are reported to the authorities, and it is possible to trace the origins of the smallest carvings back to their elephants of origin.
When Thailand became a Party to CITES in 1983, the country accepted that such measures would be part of its international treaty obligations. In every Conference of the Parties to CITES since a ban on international ivory sales was enacted in 1989, Thailand has been asked to report its progress reforming laws on elephants and ivory.
The reports have been largely the same year after year - a few dedicated people have worked on the problem where they can, but the laws have not changed. Headway has been painfully slow and the ivory smugglers know it. Thailand has consequently become a major end-destination for smuggled ivory from Africa.
The situation is at odds with other actions Thailand has taken. The country’s stance on illegal wildlife trade is, at times, commendable. Thailand is a strong supporter of the international side of CITES. In addition to hosting this year’s 16th Conference of the Parties, it also hosted the 13th Conference in 2004. No other party to the Convention has been so accommodating.
Beyond a willingness to host meetings, Thailand has also led cooperative efforts against wildlife crime. At the 2004 CITES Conference of the Parties, the Thai prime minister called for establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN).
ASEAN-WEN was the first ever multi-country network against wildlife crime. After it was established, Thailand became its most ardent supporter - giving staff and an office to the effort.
Inadequate national laws
That’s why the situation with elephants is so hard. As I noted, Thai authorities are working to address elephant and ivory-related issues. They are also severely constrained by the inadequacies of their own national laws.
"Tusks from wild elephants may not be traded, but those from captive elephants may be sold by the animals' owners."
Thai experts from the Department of National Park, Wildlife and Plant Protection (DNP) have helped develop forensic tests to distinguish African ivory from Asian ivory. This is a potentially important tool, but it will not be useful until national ivory stocks are inventoried and controls over sales are in place.
Thai law enforcement personnel from the DNP and Customs are also active interdicting ivory at national borders. They have been responsible for multiple arrests and seizures of more than 9.7 tonnes of ivory since 2009. Here again their efforts are sidelined by the lack of ivory controls inside the country.
With elephant poaching rising and international ivory smuggling at an all-time high, Thailand now stands in a unique position of responsibility to act. Failure to do so will leave one of the world’s largest unregulated ivory markets free to sell with impunity.
As long as Thailand’s markets remain open, the rest of the trade chain all the way back to Africa will simply make adjustments to continue the supply. Smugglers will modify their trafficking routes, and elephant poaching will continue.
Loss of human life will also be part of the equation. In 2012 alone, some 60 park rangers died worldwide - most of them were killed by poachers in Africa.
I am personally confident that Thailand can take the necessary action to avert this ongoing disaster. In 1992, the country instituted a national moratorium on logging as a rejoinder to irresponsible behaviour and widespread permitting fraud by its own industries. This bold initiative ended a tragic period of deforestation, landslides, property destruction and human death.
The slaughter of elephants and murder of their human protectors merits similar resolve. Thailand’s attempts to work through a parliamentary vote on elephant laws have been in process since the early 1990s and there is little reason to think they will be completed in the near-term.
National registration initiatives are similarly stalled as authorities mull the best means for gaining the cooperation of ivory vendors and live elephant owners.
Conversely, a national ban on ivory sales could come quickly. It is the clearest means to ending decimation of Africa’s elephants and it will give the world a strong message about Thailand’s commitment to CITES.
You have a problem Thailand, but you can fix it.
Dr William Schaedla is the Southeast Asia Regional Director for TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network - a strategic alliance between WWF and IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.