BANGKOK, Thailand, March 4, 2013 (ENS) – Welcoming the world’s wildlife regulators to Thailand Sunday, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra promised to amend Thai law “with the goal of putting an end to the ivory trade.” But she gave no time frame for implementing the landmark offer.

Greeting 2,000 participants from over 150 countries to the 40th anniversary Conference of the Parties at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, the Prime Minister said elephants are part of Thai culture.

Yingluck Shinawatra

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra welcoms CITES delegates, March 3, 2013 (Photo courtesy CITES)

“Just like humans, elephants also have feelings and emotions, therefore, we need to be more caring in our treatment towards elephants. That is why we need to increase the number of elephants living in their natural habitat. We are implementing our CITES obligations by cooperating to combat international trafficking in ivory.”

Shinawatra said her government has enhanced intelligence and customs cooperation with other countries, which has helped limit the smuggling of ivory from African elephants, and is “strictly enforcing the current legal framework.”

Still, Thailand is one of the world’s largest ivory markets. The country now allows trade in tusks from domesticated Asian elephants, but conservationists warn this legal trade is exploited by criminals to sell poached African ivory.

World Wildlife Fund President and CEO Carter Roberts said, “I applaud the Prime Minister for her courage and for listening to the more than 1.4 million people around the world who spoke up for elephants and demanded an end to Thailand’s ivory trade.”

“Since the Prime Minister did not announce a detailed timeline, we must remain vigilant – even during this two-week convention – to push for timebound steps to ensure that this promise becomes a reality,” said Roberts.

In his opening remarks to delegates, CITES Secretary General John Scanlon said there is renewed interest in CITES “fueled, in part, by the disturbing trends we are witnessing in the poaching and illegal trade in the African elephant and rhino for their ivory and horn, with the figures being the worse that we have witnessed in decades.”

“These trends put at risk the good conservation gains of the past decades and could threaten the very survival of the species themselves,” warned Scanlon. “Illegal trade in this wildlife has now reached a scale that poses an immediate risk to wildlife and to people, including those serving in the front lines to protect wildlife. It increasingly involves organized crime syndicates and in some cases rebel militia.”

“Wildlife crime has recently been referred to by the UN Security Council, which has linked the Lord’s Resistance Army to illicit trade in ivory in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” Scanlon said.

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Carcass of an elephant in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park, 2010 (Photo by gorillacd)

“These criminals must be stopped and we need to better deploy the sorts of techniques used to combat illicit trade in narcotics to do so,” he said.

As the tri-annual conference opened, news came that the Democratic Republic of Congo’s largest remaining forest elephant population, located in the Okapi Faunal Reserve, has declined by 37 percent in the last five years, with only 1,700 elephants now remaining.

Population surveys by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society and DRC officials show that 5,100, or 75 percent, of the reserve’s elephants have been killed in the last 15 years.

The DRC survey comes in the wake of another grim report in February from Gabon where 11,000 elephants were slaughtered in Minkebe National Park over a 10-year period.

“The global poaching crisis for elephants is at epidemic proportions,” said John Robinson, Wildlife Conservation Society executive vice president for Conservation and Science. “The world must come together to recognize this problem and to stop the killing, trafficking, and demand, or we will lose elephants in the wild in our lifetime.”

His Royal Highness Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, also expressed concern. In a video statement, Prince William called for the parties to work together to reverse the “current alarming trends” in the illegal killing of African elephants and rhinos and the surge in illegal trade of ivory.

Philip Mansbridge, who heads the UK charity Care for the Wild, said, “While it is positive that the host country has recognized the size of the ivory issue and the importance of it, we were disappointed by the lack of a clear commitment to banning the domestic trade. We don’t feel it has gone far enough.”

Mansbridge called elephant poaching for the ivory trade “a national security issue.”

“Poaching isn’t just a problem for Kenya, South Africa or wherever the animals are. This is a problem for the countries which sell ivory and rhino horn, and it’s a problem for the rest of the world because the scale of poaching means that it has become a national security issue,” he said. “We’re not just talking about the impending extinction of iconic animals like elephants and rhinos – and governments from the U.S. to China need to wake up to that fact.”

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Elephant in Thailand’s Khao Yai National Park (Photo by mattoftheday)

China is determined to work with the international community to curb ivory trade and protect wild elephants, Chinese officials said in Bangkok today.

Submitting its “Ivory Trade Report” to the conference the Chinese delegation outlined the nation’s effort in combating the illicit ivory trade and the measures for protecting wild elephants.

Meng Xianlin, executive director general of China’s Endangered Species Import and Export Management Office, told the state news agency Xinhua that China does not ban domestic trade in ivory but sets the limit of legal consumption at six tons per year.

The ivory allowed for sale comes from two sources: ivory that was imported before CITES took effect and those bought by China from four African countries’ stocks as permitted by CITES as a one-time sale in 2008.

All other elephant tusks circulated in the market are labeled as illegal, says Meng. Chinese customs officers are taking concerted and effective moves to crack down on ivory trafficking and trade, he said.

China, a target for ivory dealers, has been helping African countries set up monitoring systems for the protection of elephants and to improve the livelihood of local residents, said Meng.

The European Commission is to contribute nearly two million euros to the international police agency Interpol in support of its efforts to combat wildlife crime and protect the world’s natural resources from the illegal international trade in wild plants and animals. Over the next three years, funding worth  1.73 million euros will support Interpol’s Project Combat Wildlife Crime. Some of the funding will go to the CITES Secretariat, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, the World Bank, and the World Customs Organisation.

Janez Potocnik, European Commissioner for the Environment, said, “Few people witness environmental crime, but its effects are global, with developing countries often suffering most of all. Increase in wildlife trafficking is of particular concern, with illegal trade in ivory and rhinoceros horns at their highest levels in a decade, and other endangered species like tiger or some tropical timber also impacted. It’s a major cause of biodiversity loss, and this funding will help enforcement and international cooperation to address this worrying phenomenon.”

Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble said the support from the European Commission will help the world police body to “more effectively tackle the theft of natural resources from some of the poorest countries in the world and target the criminals who are making millions in this illicit trade.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2013. All rights reserved.