Southeast Asia is a haven for ivory smugglers. For now, government efforts to stop the flow of contraband fall short.
Naomi Doak walked into a pop-up jewelry shop in Chatuchak Market, a weekend shopping bazaar in Bangkok, Thailand, and pointed at the thickest ivory bangle in the store, whose price tag said $800. Necklaces hung on the makeshift walls, and a glass case displayed several ivory bracelets under bright white lights. Doak asked a shopkeeper where the ivory was from. “Thailand,” he said. Doak, an expert on the global wildlife trade, nodded politely. But after eyeballing the bangle’s diameter, she knew that most likely it had come from one of the African elephant species, which tend to have larger tusks than their Asian cousins. There was a very good chance the piece of jewelry came from an elephant that had been poached illegally.
No one knows the precise contours of the ivory trade, in part because professional criminals control so much of it. Yet data from market surveys and ivory seizures indicates that vast amounts of the world’s illegal ivory pass through Thailand and a few other places in Southeast Asia: Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Some of it stays in the transit countries. Much of it continues on to the Chinese mainland or the Chinese territory of Hong Kong.
A central problem, wildlife advocates say, is that both Thailand and China have laws that permit legal ivory trading. That gives smugglers and shopkeepers a perfect cover to leak African ivory into legal shops – and then pass it off as Asian. It can be impossible to tell the difference between African and Asian ivory species without testing a specimen’s DNA in a forensics laboratory, particularly when a bangle’s diameter is small. But an official in the Thai government, speaking anonymously for fear of retribution, told me that more than 90 percent of the ivory seized by Thai law enforcement officers and tested in labs is African.
On a Sunday afternoon in March, I spent a few hours shadowing Naomi Doak as she surveyed Chatuchak’s ivory stocks. Doak is a friendly Australian who speaks Thai, and she held a color coded map of the market. She had been there dozens of times before. Even so, Chatuchak has hundreds of stalls, and sometimes it took a few wrong turns down narrow market corridors before we found the vendors she was after.
It was several weeks into a campaign by Thailand’s government to register all of the country’s existing ivory stocks. Doak said she wasn’t sure how the new laws applied to legal ivory sales. Ivory vendors, it seemed, were required to register their ivory stocks like everyone else. But there still were no clear guidelines on how ivory sales themselves would be regulated. The vendors didn’t seem sure, either. And, perhaps for that reason, there was far less ivory on display than Doak had seen only three weeks before.
At one of the market’s largest ivory shops, where the staff spoke Chinese, we saw a woman buying several ivory bangles then stuffing them into plastic bags. In exchange, she handed over a thick stack of 1,000 baht ($33) notes. Doak said that was an unusually big purchase, which perhaps indicated that some consumers were buying up ivory before the new ivory regulations took full effect. The limbo period would last a few more weeks. Even Doak, a veteran wildlife-trafficking investigator, was unsure how – or whether – the new regulations would work.
“If the price of them stopping to sell is selling off everything they have? I can’t decide how I feel about that,” Doak told me. “It makes me a little hopeful, but definitely suspicious.”
Bangkok, the Thai capital and an urban area of 10 million, is Southeast Asia’s hub for African ivory smuggling. It has a seaport and an airport serving 38 million international passengers a year. Both are places where even large containers of ivory tusks can slip past customs agents. Thailand is also home to an emerging middle class that values ivory jewelry as both an emblem of national heritage and a status symbol. And, of course, it’s a major destination for tourists, some of whom are in the market for something exotic.
Chatuchak is one of at least 54 places in Bangkok selling ivory bangles, according to the wildlife advocacy group TRAFFIC. Doak, a former TRAFFIC researcher, says it may be the largest ivory market in Southeast Asia by volume and turnover. In a year and a half of surveying its ivory stocks, she and her colleagues consistently documented hundreds of ivory bangles on sale there. In one three-day period, Doak told me, they counted 2,000 bangles – equivalent to around 65 feet of elephant tusks. She says the primary buyers of the market’s ivory products are Thai citizens and Chinese tourists, who in recent years have become the number one visitors to the country.
As African elephant populations dwindle, TRAFFIC and other wildlife groups are pressuring Thailand, China, and the other Southeast Asian transit countries to do more to stop the illegal ivory that courses within and across their borders. In 2013, CITES, the international body tasked with protecting the world’s wild fauna and flora, instructed those nations to draft “ivory action” plans outlining the reforms they planned to implement. Earlier this year, Thailand and China complied by passing regulations designed to stop ivory smuggling and close loopholes in their respective legal ivory markets.
Doak says the changes are somewhat encouraging. Still, she adds, the ivory action plans are deeply flawed because they are not independently monitored. In both Thailand and China authorities have yet to outline clear, workable enforcement mechanisms for busting and punishing ivory smugglers. “If no one’s ever held accountable,” Doak says, “then the system is pointless.”
If China and Thailand have two of world’s largest ivory end-markets, why does ivory smuggling happen elsewhere, in several other Southeast Asian countries? One common explanation is that smugglers have sought ways of getting around increasingly tight customs enforcement at mainland Chinese border crossings. Conveniently for smugglers, a third of global shipping traffic already passes through the South China Sea, so there are endless opportunities to stash ivory in containers headed for Southeast Asian ports that are close to the Chinese and Thai markets. The ivory is easily concealed within shipments of dried fish, e-waste, charcoal, and even sunflower seeds.
Brendan Moyle, an economist at New Zealand’s Massey University who studies wildlife trafficking, says ivory smuggling tactics are essentially business decisions. Because ivory is bulky and must travel thousands of miles, smugglers are usually keen to ship it as cheaply as possible. And when shipping costs plummet, as they did following the global financial crisis of 2008-09, the incentive to ship ever-larger quantities increases dramatically. In a forthcoming paper in the journal Ecological Economics, Moyle analyzed ivory seizure data from the Elephant Trade Information System, a CITES-affiliated database. He found that, between 2008 and 2011, the number of ivory seizures weighing more than 1,000 kilograms rose roughly eightfold, whereas seizures of smaller amounts rose only marginally.
Choosing where to bring ivory is also a business decision. Larger ports are typically attractive to smugglers because there’s less risk of detection by customs officials, Moyle says. Also, Southeast Asia’s climate is perfect for storing large quantities of ivory without temperature-control systems – the kind that would be necessary in a place like, say, northern China. Tusks can be stockpiled and then slowly sold to investors or leaked into the legal ivory trade over a period of months or years. “If I was doing this, I would have some stockpiled in Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand,” Moyle told me. “Safe places to keep it hoarded.”
Some ivory smugglers ship by air. That may sound anachronistic in the post-9/11 era of heightened airport security. Yet an ivory shipment typically begins its journey at an African airport with lax customs infrastructure, and, much like a passenger’s luggage during a series of connecting flights, it may not be inspected much during its long journey to Asia. The tusks themselves can be well concealed, and they certainly aren’t listed on customs declarations forms. In 2011, a shipment of 118 elephant tusks and three rhino horns discovered at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport had been labeled as “craft work.” This April, Thai authorities seized four tons of ivory that had been hidden inside of bean sacks shipped from Congo.
Once raw ivory is successfully offloaded from docks or airline holds, it often moves overland to carving workshops, stockpiling locations, or legal ivory markets. Those routes can cross international borders – a process that requires more paperwork and invites scrutiny from police or customs officers. But because so many of Southeast Asia’s land borders are smugglers’ paradises, bringing ivory through them is often a piece of cake.
One well-known overland smuggling route is Mong Cai, a notorious trans-shipment point for illegal drugs and wildlife products on Vietnam’s northeastern border, next to China. China-bound contraband there often arrives on ships in the Vietnamese port city of Haiphong, and smugglers bring it north, to China, by truck. “Generally, everything that goes through Haiphong illegally probably then goes to Mong Cai” and into China, a United Nations official who monitors Vietnam’s border told me. The New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society reported in 2013 that Mong Cai is a “major route” for illegal ivory smuggled from Africa, noting that the Vietnamese government had seized more than 40,000 pounds of ivory there between 2009 and 2011, at least according to the country’s state-run news media. That number doesn’t account for all the illegal ivory that likely sailed through undetected.
Wildlife experts also believe that several ivory trans-shipment points are appearing, and expanding, elsewhere in mainland Southeast Asia. For example, Mong La, a special economic zone in eastern Myanmar near the Chinese border, has emerged as “a significant hub of the ivory trade” since 2009, with about $1.2 million worth of ivory products on open display there during 2013 and 2014 surveys, according to a recent study in the journal Biological Conservation. Mong La – which is controlled by an autonomous army in Shan State and is outside the Myanmar government’s control – is also a haven for Chinese gamblers.
Landlocked Laos also seems to be emerging as a profitable smuggling route. The number of ivory shops in Vientiane, the Lao capital, increased to 22 in 2011 from nine in 2002, TRAFFIC reported. And the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in northwestern Laos is a hotspot for smuggled wildlife contraband, including ivory tusks, bangles, and bracelets that were carved in Thailand, according to an investigation published in March by the Environmental Investigation Agency, a London-based advocacy group.
Illegal wildlife contraband “gets moved any which way they can move it,” says Mary Rice, the EIA’s executive director. “If suddenly a road block goes up, they will just change the route. They’re quite adaptive, and that’s why they get away with so much.”
As populations of African elephants dwindle due to poaching, wildlife advocacy groups like TRAFFIC and the EIA are cranking up the political pressure on Asian governments. At least 35,000 elephants were killed in Africa in 2011, the highest since 2001. In March 2013, that data – along with a pro-elephant petition from 1.5 million people organized by Leonardo DiCaprio and the advocacy groups WWF and Avaaz – prompted Thailand’s then-premier, Yingluck Shinawatra, to tell a high-profile CITES conference in Bangkok that she planned to amend her country’s ivory legislation “with the goal of putting an end to ivory trade.”
At the same gathering, the CITES secretariat asked Thailand to regulate its legal ivory market. It also instructed officials from nine countries and territories – including Thailand, China, and the key Southeast Asian ivory-transit nations – to draft ivory “action plans” within two months and take “urgent measures” to implement them. The secretariat warned that the price of inaction would be trade sanctions on all CITES-regulated exports, including orchids, python skins, and ornamental fish and plants – a global trade worth billions of dollars.
In July 2014, CITES reported that poaching levels in Africa were still “alarmingly high,” and that two-thirds of the elephants that died in 2013 had probably been killed illegally. But in 2015, some reform appears to be at hand. This winter, China’s State Forestry Administration took the surprising step of announcing a one-year ban on imports of carved ivory products. And Thailand’s military government – which seized power from the democratically elected prime minister, Yingluck, in 2014 – set limits for how much ivory individuals and households may own. It also directed Thailand’s Department of National Parks (DNP) to open a process under which Thai people who own both Asian and African ivory were required to legally register their specimens between January and April or else face fines or jail time. The idea seemed to be that knowing how much ivory was already in the country would help law enforcement officials crack down on ivory smuggling.
The Thai government’s new ivory policy is riddled with loopholes.
On a recent winter afternoon, I saw the program in action. The DNP’s headquarters is a complex of office buildings on Bangkok’s gritty northern outskirts, a short drive from Chatuchak Park. On the ground floor of one building, I visited a room with a row of desks, each with a number hanging above it, a bit like numbered signs above supermarket aisles. Nearby there was a conference table where civil servants sat inspecting pieces of ivory jewelry and filling in forms. In another room, a man in a park ranger uniform was inspecting ivory bangles with a flashlight, presumably to see whether they were real or fake. The whole scene had an air of healthy bureaucratic efficiency
But seen another way, the new ivory laws in China and Thailand are just cosmetic. China’s one-year ban received wide coverage in the international press, but it applies only to carved ivory imports – not the raw ivory that is regularly smuggled into the country by the container load. Grace Ge Gabriel, who heads the China office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, writes that the law was “merely a tiny step” in a larger fight against elephant poaching. The only move that would have a significant impact, she says, is completely banning the legal ivory trade. (For more on this debate, see Plus-Minus, page 44.)
The Thai government’s new ivory policy is also riddled with loopholes. The idea that all Thai citizens will voluntarily register their existing ivory stocks sounds good. “But it’s completely unclear what [the authorities] require to prove that a piece is different from the last piece, or where it’s from,” says the wildlife advocate Naomi Doak. The registration process also won’t make it any easier, she says, for law enforcement agencies to know whether the ivory in Thai markets is legal or illegal.
A public spokesman for the DNP declined to comment when I visited his office and did not respond to a list of emailed questions. But other Thai officials told me privately that the ivory issue is complicated. The vast bulk of the ivory seized by police and customs officials belongs to the species Loxodonta africana, they said, meaning that most of the tusks are from the African savannah – and not Thailand’s native elephant population, as ivory vendors like to claim. But, contrary to the withering international criticism of Thailand’s perceived inaction on ivory smuggling, the officials said, the government is working hard to address the problem. Overall investment in staffing and wildlife forensics technologies has risen sharply in recent years at the DNP. There is now a US Fish and Wildlife office in Bangkok to help with investigations. And government scientists are working closely with customs and police officials to analyze seizures of smuggled tusks in hopes of finding patterns and aiding future enforcement efforts.
Because elephants are so beloved by ordinary Thais, it may not be culturally appropriate to ban the ivory trade altogether, the officials said. But requiring more registration of ivory products, even if the registration process is flawed, may actually help to reduce trade volumes. After all, one official added, “Nobody would like to go to jail.”
The ease of buying ivory with Naomi Doak at Bangkok’s Chatuchak market made me curious whether any ivory was for sale outside the capital. So, on a Tuesday morning, I rode a bus three hours north to Uthai Thani, a town in north-central Thailand that, according to a 2009 TRAFFIC report, has eight workshops where carvers make jewelry, belt buckles, and knife handles from ivory. Bangkok, by comparison, has just three.
Uthai Thani’s downtown – mostly three-story buildings painted in pale pastels – sits in a flat plain surrounded by farmland. From the central bus station, I walked to an outdoor market on the next block and scanned a handful of tables where vendors were selling cheap jewelry and Buddha figurines. There was no ivory on display, and when I asked for some, a woman behind the table shrugged laconically. She didn’t look like an ivory kingpin.
Down the road there was an outdoor cafe. I ordered a coffee and asked the proprietor if he knew of any ivory shops or carving villages nearby. “Right over there,” he said, pointing to a red-roofed building across the street from the bus station. “A lot of people buy ivory there.”
The shop had a black elephant statue on its front porch. The door was locked, but I could see the shop owner, Suchat Arpasarosakul, through the window. I gestured at the door, and he let me in.
Inside, a trove of ivory dwarfed everything I had seen at Chatuchak Market. The shop was filled with ivory-handled knives, gold-accented ivory jewelry, ivory bangles, and even a pair of ivory marital aids. I also saw several raw ivory tusks in the corner. I added up the prices for just the jewelry in one of several display cases, and the value came to well over $25,000. The total value of the shop was almost certainly many times that much. I doubted that the purchasing habits of Uthai Thani residents justified having such a big inventory.
Later, in an exchange through a Thai interpreter, Suchat told me he was an ivory carver and that his shop was a family business. His clients were mainly from Uthai Thani and Bangkok, he said, and he thought the government’s efforts to restrict ivory laws would probably be good for business. “It’ll reduce competition from overseas ivory,” he explained.
I asked him where he sources his product: Africa? Northern Thailand, he said. In some cases, he said, he personally goes to elephant farms to select tusk trimmings. In others, he sends agents to buy for him – but insists on seeing before-and-after photos of the elephant to make sure that it wasn’t harmed.
It would have been impossible to verify much of what he said without running his ivory through a DNA testing lab. And it didn’t seem likely that anyone would.
Regular Journal contributor Mike Ives has written about environmental issues in Southeast Asia for The New York Times, the Associated Press and Yale Environment 360.