September 25, 2017
One of the achievements of the military regime has been a crackdown on the
Bangkok end of the international trade in ivory.
The government, wildlife officials and especially the Customs Department
have taken badly needed action to combat this terrible trade. At the same
time, it is clear there is much more to do.
Yet another major seizure of ivory last week makes this clear: Thailand is
still a major player in international wildlife trafficking, specifically
The seizure by customs officials at Suvarnabhumi airport totalled 28 whole
and partial tusks. The 41-kilogramme haul was worth four million baht in
its raw state. But the ivory would fetch at least 10 times that much had it
made it to carvers and artists, and then the commercial underground market.
It may be illegal to work or sell such ivory, but that isn’t stopping the
traffickers. And this is the crux of the problem. Starting in 2015, a
serious government effort against ivory smuggling succeeded in getting all
the legal issues settled.
New laws and regulations are in place, and the courts fully prepared to
enforce them. There has been continuous training of both the Customs
Department and other enforcement agencies. The missing links are aggressive
steps against known ivory artisans, a lack of public education and —
arguably most important — strong international efforts.
The crackdown on ivory carvers and sellers came as a shock to a formerly
open market. It was a comparatively small, niche market, but it was
extremely lucrative. Men who trained in the art were suddenly and legally
jobless; shop owners specialising in ivory were suddenly without legal
income. It was entirely predictable that some would continue in the trade
no matter what the law said. This was a breakdown and failure of local
As last week’s airport seizure showed yet again, even the poachers and
smugglers of Africa realise there are smuggling channels and ivory carvers
still working in Thailand. No matter how alert agents remain, the Customs
Department will no more catch every ivory shipment than they have succeeded
in halting drug smuggling.
Stopping the active ivory trade will not occur at the airport. Wildlife
police have to take this problem to the Thai streets. They must expand
intelligence gathering to root out the small number of ivory carvers and
their enabling businessmen still involved in this harmful and odious trade.
There is almost no public concern. Thais may love their elephants but there
are few signs that people are concerned about the fact that thousands of
elephants die to poachers’ guns in order to get the ivory to the Thai
traffickers. Better public education is required to encourage the public to
stay alert and inform authorities of ivory smuggling and sale. But the
ivory trade inevitably must be halted by determined international
Police know the route that the ivory took to get to Suvarnabhumi last week.
The shipment originated in the DR Congo, and was flown to Ethiopia for
trans-shipment to Thailand. The carrier was Ethiopian Airlines. With better
and faster communications, authorities in Bangkok, Addis Ababa and
Brazzaville would already be backtracking that route to pinpoint the
That is not happening consistently or continually. Thus, more ivory will be
taken from slaughtered elephants, sent on flights to Thailand to enter the
illegal market. This is no time for self-congratulation by the government
and departments for steps designed to halt such trafficking. It is time to
step up the battle against the ivory trade to new levels.