Hat-tip to the boys in brown (but does increased vigilance by Thai security forces mean we have to increase our own?)
Now local cultures, especially those who drink whisky around the campfire, have long memories and I have heard stories from several mahouts of stolen tusks - Seang's wife (& our ex-coordinator) Oil's Dad's elephant had his tusks nicked one dark night during the logging days, he was left alive which suggests a colleague's collusion, but his income was halved as his usefulness around the depot was drastically reduced to that of a female (sorry ladies - or had I better say, a female without the intuition an breeding capabilities?). In the old days there was financial incentive to taking on a tusker, it wasn't just about the glory.
I've heard tales from those trying to set up elephant conservation centres (the one in Pang La & later what would become the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang) that when CITES first banned the International trade in African elephant ivory in 1989 (a tough year for Thai elephants because logging was also banned in the Kingdom that year and, perhaps significantly, the value of a tusker subsequently dropped) an organised criminal gang took to killing Thai tuskers for their ivory up in the ex-logging regions. Incidentally, when I asked my friend how they put a stop to this worrying epidemic he just chuckled and said they didn't have to, "the criminals are all dead now": it seems that one night they, unwittingly, killed the favourite elephant of a powerful and mighty man; sometimes that's all it takes.
Now, up until now, at this point in the conversation I've put down my beer & said "ancient history", the world has moved on, Thailand has moved on, we hear the odd elephant in other countries poisoned or shot and tusks cut off but nothing like an epidemic, more likely opportunistic villagers trying to quickly get out of debt perhaps but no evidence that this would happen here.
Still, long memories are long memories and we depend on the goodwill of our mahouts; besides, they were here in 1989 when it all went down, I'm not even sure where I was but it wasn't in the thick of all that.
However, the other week I had a worrying Skype conversation with friend Sebastien who, under the banner of Elefantasia, runs several domestic elephant initiatives in Laos. He was trying to break a story that ten domestic tuskers had been killed for their ivory in Laos in the preceding two weeks, was there any way I could help get the word out? - well, I did what I could but set my thinking cap on, it seemed the killings started shortly after Thai customs officials at Souvhanabhumi airport had made their record ivory seizure, some 239 tusks in an aircraft container bound for Laos.
Could there be some connection? Did some ivory carvers in Laos have orders to fill and a supply problem thanks to the efficiency of Thailand's boys in brown?
Well, let's come bang up to date: in what would, in calmer times, be undoubtedly be described as a coup for Thai airport security (I shied away from that as a hit-grabbing headline), a couple of days ago the customs boys at Souvanhanabhumi did it again - another massive shipment, this time bound for Thailand.
You see, we in Thailand have a loophole in our law that sees us on the CITES blacklist despite the obvious hard work of the airport guys and the recently internationally recognised, partially for the initial seizure and the work that lead up to it, Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Khun Suwit Khunkitti. The loophole allows the sale of ivory, worked or otherwise, from legally owned domestic elephants.
Trouble is, there's no way to tell if worked ivory is from a domestic or a wild Asian elephant and the only way to tell if worked ivory is from an Asian or illegally smuggled African tusk is to send it to one pioneering lab. in the United States for DNA analysis (& they can then even tell us which part of Africa the elephant was poached from). This has been done and has lead to the arrest of smugglers and traders here in Thailand but it is hardly a smooth and routine process.
I can even understand a democratically elected Government's reluctance to close the loophole - ivory carving in Thailand is a traditional art spreading back to the time of domestication, to the carving communities it is as Thai as using your knees in a boxing match or eating unripe mango with chilli sauce and salt...
...& the upstanding artisans are, as it happens, behaving perfectly legally by buying small chunks of harvested ivory (as much as I ensure our mahouts don't need to do this) providing an income that might allow a mahout to rest his elephant from the streets for a short time.
Still, it is hard to see us coming off the blacklist (or, more importantly, see Thailand stop being part of the trade that starts with the death of an African elephant) until this loophole is closed and the sale of ivory stopped totally.
'til then I'll welcome the well meaning poster campaigns and celebrate the seizures by our brave boys in brown but I'll keep in the back of my head that for every successful seizure there will be a hundred unfilled orders for ivory that need to be filled from other sources and tighten my security a little bit more.
Customs nets major ivory haul
- Published: 22/04/2010 at 12:00 AM
- Newspaper section: News
Authorities have seized ivory weighing 1.4 tonnes smuggled into Thailand through Suvarnabhumi airport.
Customs officials show some of 296 elephant tusks, worth about 70 million baht, seized at Suvarnabhumi airport last Saturday. The ivory was allegedly smuggled from Qatar by a private firm which declared the items to be a printing press. ALISA SUWANRUMPHA
The Customs Department said the value of the contraband was estimated at 70 million baht.
Customs officials working on a tip inspected three pallets falsely identified as materials for printing equipment stored at a WFS-PG Cargo warehouse on Saturday.
They found 296 elephant tusks imported into the country aboard Qatar Airways flight QR 612 from Doha the same day. The importer of the goods was identified as Ugis Technology, located in Pak Kret district in Nonthaburi.
Suvarnabhumi Airport Cargo Clearance Customs Bureau director Tanat Suvattanametakul said he suspected the contraband was shipped from the Kenyan capital of Nairobi to Thailand via Doha.
"We knew there would be a big ivory shipment coming in around this time," he said.
Authorities contacted Ugis Technology and found it was not involved in the smuggling operation as the company was unaware of the cargo, Mr Tanat said. The smugglers only used the name of the company as a cover to try to clear the cargo through the airport.
This was the second large seizure of ivory at the airport in less than two months. Authorities found 239 pieces weighing two tonnes on Feb 24 which had been transported on an Emirates flight, also from Doha.
"Traffickers are ready to take the risk of their contraband being seized because the illegal trade is so lucrative," Mr Tanat said.
Raw ivory sells for between 25,000 and 30,000 baht a kilogramme, depending on its quality, he said.
Customs authorities have closely monitored cargo carried by airlines - especially Qatar Airways and Emirates - as they have connecting flights to Africa, the main supply point for ivory exported to Thailand.
The ivory is exported to Thailand, where it is carved with intricate patterns before being sent to overseas markets including the US.