On Friday morning, customs officials at Suvarnabhumi Airport invited us to a press conference to see the 2,000 kilos of ivory that they had recently seized. The shipment came in from Uganda and Kenya and include 316 pieces of tusks which were hidden in seven large boxes. The ivory is estimated to be worth about 50 million baht which is $1.7 million. No-one has claimed ownership of the ivory, however, according to Thai law, the owner of illegal imported goods (other than drugs) can go free if they agree to sign it all over to the Thai government.
Normally with contraband, the government destroys the products in highly publicized events by using a steam roller. However, it is unknown what the government has done with the tusks that they seized in the past. In a 2000 news report, the deputy director general of Thai customs is quoted as saying “The ivory will be either destroyed or handed to a government department that can put it on display or to otherwise good use”. Prime Minister Abhisit was recently in the news for accepting a gift of two ivory tusks believed to be worth hundreds of thousands of baht. Their origin is presently unknown and the prime minister is now under investigation.
According to TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, Thailand has the largest ivory market in Asia. Ivory is smuggled in from places like Africa and then carved into jewellery items and small Buddha images. In shops in Bangkok and around the country, it is easy to buy ivory items such as boxes and small containers, belt buckles, knives and swords. In a survey undertaken in 2007, 151 shops selling over 12,000 pieces of ivory were documented in Bangkok alone. Most of it is sold openly in markets such as Chatuchak Weekend Market and Chinatown. Even up scale shopping malls have shops selling ivory products.
Although Thailand has signed an agreement with CITES that restrict wildlife trafficking, Thailand has its own laws regarding Thai elephants that complicates any clampdown on the illegal trade of ivory. It is difficult to tell whether a belt buckle is made from illegal ivory from Africa or it came from a Thai elephant. Shopkeepers can just claim that the ivory is Thai and the police cannot do anything about it. Although it was a good step forward today with the seizure of 2,000 kilos of African ivory, there is still a lot that needs to be done to stop illegal wildlife trafficking. But, the government cannot work alone. As the advert says, “When the Buying Stops The Killing Can Too!”