Elephant Enemies: Corruption, Domestic Trade and Weak Legislation

January, February 2013 Ivory Seizures in Gabon and Thailand

Two seizures last week highlight the role of key aspects in the illegal trade in elephant ivory – corruption, the threat of domestic trade and weak legislation.

The most recent, on the 2nd of February, involved a police captain being arrested at a checkpoint in the southern province of Chumphon in Thailand, carrying an unregistered gun and transporting 20 tusks in a police van. The captain claimed he had been hired to transport the ivory across the border from Malaysia, a country which regularly makes huge seizures of African elephant ivory. The seizure in question highlights one of the routes this ivory is making its way into Thailand, one of illegal ivory's main consumer and transit countries. It also highlights the means by which the co-ordinators of such cross border trade trade use smugglers who will be less likely to be scrutinized - in this case corrupt police officers. The seized tusks were likely destined to be laundered into the legal local trade in ivory by passing them off as originating from domesticated Thai elephants.

Following on from their success the previous week, Judicial Police and the AALF project (Appui Application de la Loi sur la Faune) in Gabon again collaborated to bring about the disruption of a plan to sell 50kg in Tchibanga. An army Lieutenant and ivory trafficker who have been implicated in the sale of ivory on multiple occasions were both arrested together with a prospective ivory buyer. These latest seizures in Gabon coincide with a shocking government announcement that over half the elephant population in Minkebe National Parksome 11,100 individuals, have fallen victim to poachers since 2004. Minkebe, one of the country's largest national parks, sits on borders with Cameroon and the Republic of Congo and park authorities believe most of the poachers are Cameroonian, forced across the border by anti-paoching efforts and seeking more vulnerable elephant populations.

The lucrative nature of the trade in ivory unfortunately tempts many in positions of power and influence. While the penalties for such abuse are often considerable, those for poaching and trade in protected wildlife often fall short. However, enforcement of existing legisaltion is encouraging and in Gabon there are indications these penalties will be strengthened in the future, thereby acting as a more significant deterrent to this crime. This will be vital to help prevent Gabon's remaining elephants from meeting the same bloody end as their fellow inhabitants in Minkebe NP.          

The Thai seizure also illustrates how enforcement of the international ban in ivory trade is made all that much harder by the existence of legal ivory markets within certain countries. As noted in a report to CITES for the upcoming meeting in Bangkok in March this year, Thailand is one of the world’s two most important end-use markets driving illegal ivory trade (the other is China) and any future decline in this trade will depend upon the actions taken by these two countries. It is hoped that Thailand will heed these calls, ban its legal ivory market and engage in improved wildlife law enforcement to seriously address this issue and lessen the threat elephants currently face from poaching.

Look out for Bloody Ivory News and Facebook reports from the CITES meeting on this and many other elephant related issues.

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