Pity the Giants

Despite strong international sanctions against the illegal trade, ivory products still flourish in Thailand, where ivory carving is a traditional art. Thailand finds itself at the epicenter of an international black market, ushering in large shipments of African ivory each year. Materials are smuggled through a complicated trail that sometimes passes through ports as far flung as Saudi Arabia and India. Tourists provide the main source of income for ivory retailers, who set up shop in hotels and souvenir stores. Meanwhile, loose customs regulations meant to facilitate tourism make it difficult for customs officials to crack down on potential smugglers. Ivory sculptors protest the severe international scrutiny, claiming the right to preserve their ancient art form – despite the fact that it grows more tourist-oriented under global market pressure. – YaleGlobal

Pity the Giants

As much as everyone knows it’s illegal and a threat to an endangered species, the global trade in ivory has a momentum all of its own. So where to from here?
Kesa Nimrahong
Thursday, September 30, 2004

Trading ivory or its products is illegal in Thailand but sales of ivory goods are still common here.

Thailand is the main centre of the ivory trade in Southeast Asia, according to the local branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

More than 5,000 pieces of ivory products were seized this year. Just this month, police at Bangkok Airport found ivory pieces worth at least Bt8 million in luggage from Singapore.

Ivory products can easily be found in souvenir and luxury hotel shops around Bangkok, especially around Charoen Krung Road. The major areas include Yaowarat, Surawong, MBK and the Old Siam Plaza, according to a survey by The Nation.

Considering the amount of ivory products on sale, one might think Thailand has a proliferation of elephants – for a steady supply of tusks to local craftsmen. In fact, the population has decreased drastically in recent decades and only about 1,300 beasts remain today, spread across the Kingdom’s 517,000 sq km land area.

So, where does all the raw ivory for these products come from?

“Eighty per cent comes from African countries,” says Aphiwut Suksri, a senior official at the Wildlife Conservation Office. Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Nigeria were named as source countries.

Between 1993 and 2002, the Department of Customs seized 406 kilograms of ivory, 222 pieces of ivory products and another 181 pieces of crafted ivory worth Bt15.1 million.

A raid on 13 hotels in Bangkok this year by the newly-established “wildlife police” within the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry found 2.3 kg of ivory and another 5,013 ivory pieces or products.

“Most ivory from Africa is smuggled through Dubai before entering Thailand at Don Muang airport or Klong Toei port. If the police are carrying out checks, it will go through Saudi Arabia or India instead,” Aphiwut said.

Once it arrives in Bangkok, the ivory will be transported to the only remaining ivory sculpting centre in Thailand – Nakhon Sawan’s Phayuha Khiri district. Later, the sculpted products are either sent back to Bangkok or sold directly to a craft centre.

Other sources of illegal ivory are neighbouring countries, especially Burma, where elephant numbers are not as critical as in Thailand. The two major entry points are Chiang Rai’s Mae Sai and Prachuap Khiri Khan’s Sing Khorn pass.

“The ivory is well-packed and carried through thick forest to the Mae Sai river on the Thai-Burma border, where Thai traders wait to transport it to Bangkok,” Wildlife Fund Thailand officer Harnnarong Yaowalert said.

“Burmese people will smuggle the ivory based on orders from Bangkok. [They will carry] about 3-4 pieces each per trip with a value of Bt100,000 to Bt200,000 for perfect ivory pieces,” he explained.

However, domestic sources still remain too, Dr Somphoch Sriphosamart of the Biodiversity Research and Training (BRT) programme said.

“Even though the total number of wild elephants in Thailand has not changed significantly, 24 elephants were killed for ivory between 1992 and 1997,” the researcher said.

Officials, academics and independent researchers from wildlife conservation organisations came to similar conclusions on why the trade continues today. They believe legal loopholes, poor law enforcement and tourism promotion are among the factors boosting this black business today.

Two legal issues cloud the ban on ivory trading. While the revised 1992 Wild Animals Reservation and Preservation Act completely banned the trade of ivory and its products, a loophole exists because an outdated law – the 1939 Transport Animal Act – allows the controversial trade if the ivory comes from local elephants that lived and died in Thailand.

In 2003, the number of registered elephants in Thailand was 2,843. Ivory could have been traded under this loophole.

Moreover, the law also creates practical obstacles for inspections and the arrest of illegal traders, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Thailand. If suspicious ivory or ivory products are found, the burden of proof still lies with police or officials.

During The Nation survey, many traders claimed their products were legal, made from ivory they bid for from the Department of Customs after a court judge handed over smuggled ivory.

But a senior customs officer denied the claim. The last tender to sell “material evidence” ivory stock was seven years ago, Sankorn Phuengpradit said. Inspections should be done on those ivory product sellers, he said.

These legal loopholes, along with limited budget and human resources, all lead to ineffective law enforcement.

The problem also had scant attention until bureaucratic reform in 2002 created new authorities within the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to tackle the illegal trade in wildlife.

In 2002, a big raid almost ended ivory crafting in Phayuha Khiri, aside from work of some legal pieces of ivory, authorities said.

A third factor was the growth of tourism, which has made the “black” trade easier to hide, official said.

Custom checks for ivory smuggling at airports is more difficult now because officers “facilitate” tourists. Smugglers blend in with tourists and find more complex ways to hide ivory pieces, difficult even for x-ray machines to detect.

“We can only do a sampling check on 20 per cent of all visitors,” Customs officer Yuttana Yimkarun admitted.

Another new campaign is being launched by the authorities, conservation groups and tourism business operators to raise awareness – particularly with souvenir and hotel shop operators – that the trade is illegal. After police raids, the number of hotels selling the products dropped from 35 to just one between December 2000 and last month.

A WWF survey also showed the number of ivory products sold in 35 hotels in Bangkok had dropped from 15,465 pieces (worth some Bt61.3 million) to 5,355 pieces (worth about Bt11.6 million) between December 2000 and October 2003.

However, the WWF survey also found the amount of ivory products on sale in Bangkok souvenir shops rose from 11,424 (worth some Bt78.0 million) to 13,612 (worth Bt78.6 million).

The sculpting continues, but for how much longer?

With the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) gaining ground, some Thai artists are facing the loss of their livelihood.

The art of ivory sculpting is a disappearing aspect of Thai culture, said a Nakhon Sawan researcher, urging the government to step in to preserve the last group of sculptors.

“Beginning more than 100 years ago, the Thai-style art first emerged as an elite tradition of the King Rama V era,” said Somchai Chorsawai, a researcher at Nakhon Sawan Rajabhat Institute.

“It later developed into a modern art style during the Vietnam War, when some foreigners hired the sculptors on commission. Now it has become a more tourist-oriented style,” he said.

The current sculptors are fourth-generation artists, of whom only 80 remain working at the ivory-sculpting marketplace in Nakhon Sawan’s Phayuha Khiri district, he added.

Following complaints made by elephant conservation groups, police raided the market in 2002, suspecting it was involved in the illegal ivory trade.

Almost all of the sculptors have since been forced to change their profession for economic reasons, many of them trying to shift to related fields like wood or plastic sculpting. Some have become factory labourers.

Among those who are attempting to remain in the field, some have switched to sculpting pieces of cow bone, wood and coconut shell to survive, while waiting for the day when a customer delivers a piece of legal ivory to be sculpted.

“I used to earn as much as Bt400 per piece, but earnings have dropped to only Bt4. We have had to switch to machine sculpting instead of handmade,” said Oad, a 60-year-old sculptor.

“I tried to sculpt plastic but couldn’t stand its terrible smell. So now I mainly use cow bone,” said Thanong Sangnark, a 20-year veteran of the trade.

“I used to have more than 20 students. The raid made them leave because I switched to wood crafting, which is more difficult as wood breaks easier. It’s not so popular,” 69-year-old Pradit Bamrungsri said.

“We are not criminals. We were not the ones who killed the elephants. I want this kind of art to be preserved,” he added.

Researcher Somchai said the art is actually gaining recognition internationally, despite sanctions against illegal ivory trading.

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