Thai Authorities Crack Down on Elephant Ivory Trade

BANGKOK, Thailand, April 5, 2011 (ENS) – Royal Thai Customs investigators confiscated more then two metric tons of smuggled African elephant ivory from a shipping container on a boat at Bangkok’s seaport on Wednesday. The tusks were hidden behind hundreds of boxes of frozen fish from Kenya.

Customs officials, who displayed their seizure in Bangkok, said the 247 tusks they found were cut from at least 123 dead elephants.

This is the first time that customs officials have seized ivory from a shipment by boat, said the Bangkok-based wildlife anti-trafficking group Freeland.

Thai Customs and other law enforcement officials display elephant tusks seized March 30 from a boat at the Port of Bangkok. (Photo courtesy Freeland)

“It is another sign that steady collaboration by Thai and African law enforcement is foiling ivory traffickers who are losing huge amounts of money, and that’s where you have to hit them to stop them – in the pocket,” said Freeland Director Steven Galster.

The March 30 bust came the day after the commander of Thailand’s Nature Crime Police said that the criminals behind the illegal ivory trade are changing their tactics to get around the increasing number of seizures by a coordinated Thai and African law enforcement operation.

“The pattern of smuggling has changed,” said Commander Missakawan Buara. “Now we are seeing not only shipping but also passengers carrying ivory into Thailand too. This shows that police need to work together with Customs and DNP to stop illegal ivory smuggling into Thailand.”

Royal Thai Customs, Royal Thai Police, and the Department of National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Division, as well as members of the African Lusaka Agreement Task Force are collaborating in an ongoing effort to stop the illegal trade of African elephant ivory into Thailand.

“Customs’ policy on social protection refers to animal protection as well,” said Prasong Poolthanet, director of Royal Thai Customs. “Customs is now cooperating with African officials, and is committed to working with police to combat illegal smuggling of wildlife.”

Thai investigators found the elephant tusks in a shipment of frozen fish from Kenya. (Photo courtesy Freeland)

Thai authorities joined their African counterparts last November at the International Law Enforcement Academy in Bangkok to share intelligence on ivory trafficking. The event was organized by Freeland and sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Since the November event, officials have conducted nine enfocement actions in in Kenya and Thailand. They have confiscated more then four metric tons of ivory, and have arrested seven people involved in the illegal ivory trade.

There are plans for follow up meetings in Africa this year to continue the progress made toward bringing down the criminal syndicates behind ivory trafficking.

The 247 tusks are being transferred to Thailand’s Department of National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation for use in ongoing investigations into the illegal trade in elephant ivory.

Ivory carvings from China at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (Photo by Raj)

To protect dwindling elephant populations, international trade in elephant ivory was banned in 1989, but seizures have risen over the past five years.

Galster says traffickers smuggle ivory, rough or carved, from Africa through Thailand into China and Japan. Some also reaches the United States and Europe.

Elephant ivory is in demand as a material for carving and also is ground up for use in traditional medicine.

On March 29, a 15 month official investigation into international ivory trafficking through Thailand resulted in a police raid of two underground carving factories and depots. Thai police arrested the two owners, who are Thai citizens, and seized evidence to support a continued probe.

An undisclosed amount of ivory, including large pieces of African elephant tusks, hippo incisors and other bones were sized.

“The reason that we are seeing hippo and other bones here could indicate a new scarcity in elephant ivory,” said Commander Buara.

“Thai police are to be congratulated for their persistent drive to dismantle ivory trafficking syndicates that operate in this country,” said Douglas Goessman, a law enforcement advisor from Freeland who led a support team during the March 29 police action.

“They have joined forces with their counterparts in Africa and the NGO community,” he said, “and as a result have assembled a wealth of information that is supporting a successful enforcement drive.”

The African elephant, Loxodonta africana, is listed as Vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. There remain some 10,000 mature individuals, according to the latest population estimate in 2004.

Although large tracts of continuous elephant range remain in parts of Central, Eastern and Southern Africa, the IUCN warns that elephant distribution is becoming increasingly fragmented across the continent.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.