Large Legal Loopholes Lead to Leniently Levying Lawmakers (education must be key)
Living in a world of oft scrubbed elephants you would think I'd be more conscious than most that, in life, everything comes in different shades of grey. Perhaps I am, perhaps, like all good craftsmen I should blame my tools; the tool in question (which is also to blame for the infrequency of missives to these pages) being the social networking tool, Twitter, where daily rants in shades of black or white (the 140 characters it allows you leave no space for caveats, greys or maybes) including my own can be found at @elehelp.
So it was when a story broke of a Thai lady arrested smuggling ivory out of Kenya some time last week, I scanned it quickly & wrote a line or so praising the customs guys and decrying the continued and organised poaching of African elephants. A few days later the story came to a conclusion and mentioned that the lady had, for her troubles & arrest, earned a fine of just under US$500.
It was generally agreed that this was hardly a deterrent to someone, we assumed, involved in the multi-million dollar business of ivory smuggling. How can we possibly expect to stop the ivory poaching if the worst you can expect to suffer when caught, seemingly red handed, is a confiscation, a fine that costs less than the air ticket & a slap on the wrist.
But then I actually read the piece beneath the headline and saw her defence, while she was found guilty of the crime for which she was arrested, her story was plausible enough to cast doubt that she was part of an international gang bent on the destruction of elephants, or even that she was a duped mule.
Her story went like this: She is a Thai lady married to a Mozambican man, heading home to Thailand for the holidays and transiting through Kenya, in Mozambique it is legal to buy and sell ivory on the street, as it is in Thailand so it hadn't occurred to her that it may be illegal to transfer ivory from one country to another, nor that Kenya might get so stressed out about people removing parts of one of it's protected species.
Now (& this may come as a surprise to you), I don't claim to be an expert on Mozambican law, I have no idea how it can be legal to buy and sell ivory in Mozambique - either elephants are not a protected species there (?) or, or what? - but in Thailand it is legal to buy and sell ivory IF the ivory has been harvested from a Thai domestic elephant.
Trouble is, with the Thai loophole, you have no way of knowing (short of expensive & time consuming DNA tests) whether an ivory piece you look at is carved from Pang Nelly's tusk, pared away by a perhaps loving mahout in order to make some cash & keep his ele off the street (&, as usual, I romanticise, the bodies of dead tuskers are often bought purely for their tusks), whether it is from a poached wild Thai elephant or whether it is the tusk of a once majestic African beast.
I know why the Thai loophole exists, there is a perfectly legal, traditional trade of ivory carvers that are considered an integral part of Thai culture who could, if we were living in a world where trade could be controlled and status wasn't assumed to be confirmed by the keeping of bits of dead animal, continue their trade without harming a single elephant. Thai lawmakers are reluctant to persecute these artisans when it is quite possible for them to exist and fill their niche in Thai culture without harming the situation - if only we'd stop buying all would be OK.
Still, while the loophole exists, there is a perfect way for smugglers & poachers to 'launder' smuggled African ivory and there is a chance that innocent-of-poaching people can drive a trade in African trinkets that drives a trade in poaching.
While those of us that live with elephants and pontificate, or those of you who read the rants of we pontificators, might find it hard to believe there is anyone out there who doesn't know of that huge, multi-headed, complexly written and composed CITES convention with it's ever changing thoughts on different subjects and it's intensely political, horse trading (figurative of course, literal horse trading may find them having to arrest themselves) over which appendix each species should fall into.
The vast majority of the world, it seems, doesn't.
Personally I can't fault the following logic: if it is legal to buy at home and it is legal to buy (but perhaps more expensive) at Granny's house across the world why on earth wouldn't it be legal to take it home and give it to Granny?
In this case I am reminded of a Laos lady arrested in the US early last year, a lady with far less benefit of the doubt that our original protagonist - who pleaded guilty of breaking a law through ignorance of the existence of that law - this lady was arrested with 'medicinal' animal parts and, despite having had parts confiscated on entry during a previous trip, despite having been in receipt of a letter from the authorities explaining why bringing endangered species parts into the country was illegal and why the previous confiscation had been made, despite getting caught again with animal parts and, this time, arrested - despite all of this, she found it very hard to plead guilty, grudgingly she admitted that she had broken a law but, according to the news reports, could not see how, despite knowledge of the existence of the law, something her family had been doing for generations (presumably back home) could be a crime.
So while I applaud CITES efforts and I certainly think we should try and close our little loophole somehow, I think the key is education, we can do our bit by inviting Thai kids to join us in camp and giving them our little spiel, tell them how we feel, great efforts are being made by certain charities and celebrities with clout in consuming countries, perhaps it is time for Government and school systems to step in?
A CITES poster at Kunming, Yunnan, China airport - education in action!