SPECIAL REPORT: Dealing with the elephant in the room – ivory trade
“An elephant tusk is actually the elephant’s tooth of which more than one-third of the tusk, or its palatal root, is rooted in its jaw. That means, removing an elephant’s tusks without causing the death of the animal is almost impossible.
So, the tusks or ivory that we are seeing are literally from dead elephants. Only dead elephants can give away their tusks,” DNP -WIFOS laboratory head Dr Kanita Ouitavon said of the horrifying fact about the blooded ivory and the deaths of the elephants.
Every day, around 55 wild elephants in Africa, or around 20,000 a year, are poached for their tusks, leaving only the population of estimated 350,000 on the verge, according to TRAFFIC, a global wildlife-trade monitoring organisation.
Their ivory is critically destined for Asia, including Thailand, which has been pinpointed by the international wildlife conservation community as being a major end-user market for the products, prompting concerned agencies, including Dr Kanita’s lab, to take serious actions over the years to help stamp out “the slaughter” of the elephants in the African continent.
Courtesy of TRAFFIC/ Photo credit/ Martin Harvey WWF-Canon
Elephant ivory has been a critical issue in the wildlife conservation community and tops the list of party members of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) over the last decade or so, as updated reports from reliable organisations have indicated a trend of mass killings of the animals in the continent.
As reported by TRAFFIC, 90 per cent of African elephants have been killed in the last 100 years, and the rate has been accelerated, with 20 per cent or so of the population having been lost just over the past decade, in line with the increasing trend of arrests and seizures of ivory across the continent, from Africa to Asia.
These are illicit, as African elephants are on CITES’s Appendix I, banning any commercial purposes of the animals.
Despite the distance, Thailand was believed to be the largest unregulated ivory market, critically because of craftsmanship in the country that prompted several spots to be sources of manufacturing and production of crafted ivory.
Being CITES’s party member, Thailand was pressured to take action to help suppress and control such illicit trade. In 2002, the country was told during a conference – the CITES COP 12 – held in Chile to come up with measures to control ivory trade in the country.
It was not until 2008 that the Cabinet resolved to instruct concerned agencies to come up with measures to help regulate ivory trade. However, none of the plans were introduced and implemented due to the political impasse, according to Somkiat Soontornpitakkool, director of the CITES office of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation.
In 2013, CITES addressed the country as one of “Primary Concern” along with seven other countries, and was requested to come up with the National Ivory Action Plan (NIAP), otherwise trade in other authorised wild products would be sanctioned.
“The most problematic issue concerning us at that time was that we didn’t have any laws or regulations to control ivory from Africa whereas we allowed trade in ivory from our domesticated elephants. As we didn’t have any controls in place, we were viewed as an ivory laundering source,” said Somkiat.
According to the tradition, elephants in Thailand, which were captured in the past before the Wildlife Reservation and Protection Law was introduced, have been raised as domesticated animals.
Because they are domesticated, their ivory, which is removed after it falls, could be put up for sale. This permissible trade is seen by international wildlife conservation community as a loophole for ivory from Africa to get mixed in the market.
The existing problem is exacerbated by the fact that some wild elephants were caught and laundered as domesticated elephants following loose regulation via the old elephant identification registration by the Provincial Administration Department.
Under the department’s registration process, domesticated elephants would be given only a rough ID certificate or “a ticket”, showing only drawings of rough features and noticeable marks required under the 1939 Beast of Burden Act.
Such a loose control allowed falsification and replacement of elephants, which is believed to be helpful in improvement of in-house breeding, especially if the replacement elephants were brought from the wild.
In response to international pressure, the government in September 2013 resolved to come up with the first five-year NIAP. The plan was revised again in 2014 following CITES’s recommendation, which contributed significantly to measures for dealing with both African and domesticated elephants and their ivory, covering the two-year period of 2014-15.
According to Somkiat and the annual reports on Implementation of Thailand’s National Ivory Action Plan that the country has submitted to the CITES Standing Committee since 2016, Thailand focused on some main fronts to deal with the problems: introducing laws and regulations; amending laws; elephant and ivory database management; strengthening of enforcement; and introduction of public campaigns.
Thailand kicked off the revised NIAP plan with an amendment of the existing Wildlife Reservation and Protection Act to include African elephants as a new protected species in late 2014.
It also introduced the new 2015 Elephant Ivory Act to close a loophole that allowed falsification of the ivory of wild elephants as that of domesticated animals, which further complicates the issue.
In 2016 and 2018, when the new 2016 NIAP plan and its renewed version and the 2018 NIAP plan were introduced respectively, more related laws and regulations were pushed for amendment along with introduction of related legislation to further close the loopholes and cement actions. For instance, the DNP further issued a new notification under the Elephant Ivory Act in regard to the control of import and export of domesticated elephant ivory, which requires a guarantee deposit of ivory in order to prevent taking ivory out of the country as temporary export or for exhibition.
The Department of Livestock Development, meanwhile, issued a new notification under the Animal Epidemic Act, which requires marking and permit for movement of raw ivory by the department.
Last, but not least, was the amendment of the Beast and Burden Act, which has seen a new registration process of domesticated elephants’ IDs, introducing a new registration book that also contains their DNA data.
Newly born domesticated elephants, at the same time, must be registered within 90 days, not an eight-year period that allowed a loophole for laundering of wild elephants earlier.
Above all, two subcommittees on law enforcement and on raising public awareness were also set up to follow up the plans as a result.
Dr Kanita scrolls through the dababase on the DNAs of domesticated elephants now kept at the DNP-WIFOS lab.
Under the 2014-15 NIAP, along with the legislation an ivory database was developed, which is still continued through the plans that follow. As reported so far, 3,600 ivory possession certificates were inspected and issued.
The market, meanwhile, was also restricted.
Target areas were re-prioritised to 11 provinces that required close monitoring on ivory trade. They included provinces having more than five ivory shops or manufacturing sites or border areas where ivory shops are located – Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Nonthaburi, Kanchanaburi, Phuket, Surin, Nakhon Sawan, Uthai Thani, Sukhothai, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
Ivory shops were required to register under the Elephant Ivory Act. The number of shops dropped from 215 to 151 in 2016, and now stands at around 122, according to Somkiat.
Random checks of DNA of ivory products from 13 ivory shops were conducted and five shops out of these were once found selling African ivory. They were charged with illegal trade of products of protected animals under the Wildlife Reservation and Protection Act with a penalty of up to four years’ imprisonment or up to Bt40,000 fine and/or both.
In the DNP-Wildlife Forensic Science Unit (DNP-WIFOS), Dr Kanita and her subordinates have been busy with receiving seized ivory for DNA checks to establish its origin. Almost half of the work at the lab, she said, was about ivory and rhino horns from Africa.
Specialising in DNA analysis, Dr Kanita and her team were tasked with developing the database on domesticated elephants’ DNAs to tighten controls on the animals, on the other hand.
After the introduction of the 2016 NIAP plan, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) had issued order number 60/2559 in September 2016, instructing concerned agencies to implement comprehensive measures to address illegal trade in elephants. What significantly followed was nationwide DNA checks on domesticated elephants to establish the completed DNA database on the animals.
A working group comprising veterinarians from the DNP and the DLD was tasked with collecting blood and hair samples from the animals before sending them to Dr Kanita’s lab.
The DNAs of 3,755 domesticated elephants were examined and recorded in the new database. The data was also put in the new ID certificates of domesticated elephants to better verify them.
This, Dr Kanita said, helps plug a loophole concerning falsifying of wild elephants as the domesticated population because anything outside what has been recorded would be deemed illegally derived. This, in turn, helps support control of ivory trade as it helps clear the origin of suspicious ivory.
“Information about the DNAs that we have is very important as it helps us block the process of falsifying elephants. The “never die” elephants replacing one another under the same old certificate would no longer happen,” said Dr Kanita. “At the same time, this helps relieve CITES’s concern as it helps exclude some ivory from getting mixed in the market.”
DNP introduced a scanner in2015 to try to examine the origin of crafted ivory items in shops nationwide.
Law enforcement front
As reported by Thailand to CITES, law enforcement is another crucial front on which Thailand has been cracking down on illicit ivory trade.
Following improvement of concerned laws and regulations, as well as integrated forces and intelligence, illegal import and export of ivory on targeted routes have also been put in focus.
This involves increase of inspection of passengers, luggage and cargo at borders, airports, seaports, and postal shipments from targeted countries based on the CITES analysis.
According to the reports on Implementation of Thailand’s National Ivory Action Plan submitted to CITES, the rigorous effort led to the arrest of three cases of ivory smuggling during the first half of 2016, while there were two more arrests domestically for illegal ivory possession.
Proactive intelligence exchange between the Customs Department and other CITES members were critically attributed to additional arrests and seizures. For instance, in March 27, 2016, 315.2kg of 87 pieces of cut ivory were seized at Suvarnbhumi Airport. At the same time, the Thai authority liaised with Kenyan Customs to inspect the shipment of ivory at a Kenyan airport leading to further confiscation of 64.12kg ivory by Kenyan authorities.
In 2017, six more ivory seizures were reported:
– March: 330kg of ivory transported from Malawi to Thailand.
– May: 1.37kg of ten worked items delivered via postal package from Japan.
– July: 37.1kg of ivory transited from Ethiopia via Thailand destined for Laos, and another 36.8kg of ivory transited from Ethiopia via Thailand destined for Laos were seized.
– August: 2.8kg of ivory pieces delivered via postal package.
– September: 28 pieces of ivory weighing 41.09kg from Congo to Thailand.
The police, meanwhile, have established an ivory taskforce with the main duty of suppressing illegal ivory trade nationwide. The taskforce set up checkpoints along major and minor routes to prevent ivory smuggling, and also inspected ivory shops and manufacturers periodically.
According to Somkiat, around eight tonnes of ivory have been seized so far since Thailand first implemented the plan.
Source: TRAFFIC's 2016 report, In Transition: Bangkok's Ivory Market.
At CITES’s Standing Committee SC 66 held in early 2016 in Switzerland, the committee commended Thailand and four other countries of “Primary Concern” for “substantially achieving NIAPs”. At the CITES Cop 17 in South Africa in the same year, it removed Thailand from the list of “Primary Concern” to “Secondary Concern”.
And in the CITES’ Standing Committee in Russia early this month, Thailand was not required to implement the NIAPs anymore.
Monica Zavagli, wildlife senior project officer at TRAFFIC said Thailand has made progress in terms of implementing its NIAP. After initial criticism, the country has also revised its NIAP and extended the duration of the action plan, taking several steps including amending existing elephant and ivory related laws and introducing necessary new ones.
However, Zavagli said it now must ensure the maintenance and effectiveness of the measures that have been taken and keep up pressure on illegal ivory traders.
“Random checks at hotspots as well as DNA tests to verify that the ivory that is being sold in open markets, where permitted, are Asian and not African,” said Zavagli. “We are finding more and more trade in ivory products online. This is not unique to Thailand, but given Thailand’s historical trade in ivory and demand from locals and tourists, and particularly since the tens of thousands were once openly available in the market, meaning the stocks are somewhere, it is critical for authorities to also continue to monitor the situation and act now before unscrupulous traders make it the new ivory marketplace.”
Critically, Thailand also must show it is serious about combating illicit ivory trade by arresting and prosecuting traffickers who are using the country as a transit point or a base for the illegal business at the international level, she added.
Zavagli pointed that Thailand ever made its intention to end its domestic ivory trade, first announced by then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2013 during her opening speech at the CITES conference in Bangkok.
She said the current Thai leadership has also been vocal about the need for strict enforcement and international cooperation in the fight against ivory traffickers. It would be good to see a timeline and plans to reach the goal Thailand has set for itself, she remarked.
Wildlife crime, Zavagli agreed, can only be solved through a holistic approach with each step of the illegal trade chain tackled. Working in source countries to stop the poaching, in transit countries to stop the trafficking, and in consumer countries to stop the deman. This is all needed, she said.
In recent years the international community has stepped up efforts to address wildlife trafficking, including the private sector, from transport and logistics companies to banks and social media, Zavagli said.
For Thailand, Somkiat said the country would still continue introducing and implementing the plans because “the problem can return if we lower our guard”.
It would increasingly emphasise on law enforcement to integrate more of international collaboration, whereas wildlife forensics would be developed further to help resolve the cases.
Thailand, he said, still faces pressure from the international community, which calls for a total ban on the ivory market.
Somkiat said it was not an easy decision to close the market here, as some elephants were domesticated and their ivory was in the possession of their owners, who had the right to sell it.
Above all, raising domesticated elephants is also about tradition, and it’s not easy to end such a tradition as well as the livelihoods of those involved.
“It takes time to solve the issue, and we need time, especially when it concerns our people and tradition. However, I believe things will get better given what we have done,” said Somkiat.
Alleged illegal possession of Asian elephants in the South a few years ago, raided by Nepolice.