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African elephants victims of Thai trafficking

21 march 2011, 11:24
For many years Southeast Asia had a bountiful supply of elephants to satisfy Thailand's ivory traffickers, but the decimation of the species has seen them turn to Africa for their plunder, AFP reports.

The more than 1,600 tusks seized since the beginning of 2009 by Thai customs indicate that more than 800 elephants were slaughtered to feed a murky and voracious international market.

"Thailand is still ranked number one" in the ivory traffic rankings, said Chris Shepherd, deputy manager for Southeast Asia at wildlife protection group Traffic.

International trade in ivory was banned in 1989, but seizures have risen dramatically in the past five years.

Experts say the trade is passing through organized networks often linked to the smuggling of rare animals from Mozambique, Tanzania or Kenya.

"When you order ivory for decoration, one elephant will be killed -- the killer is demand," said Lieutenant Colonel Adtapon Sudsai, investigation chief at the Natural Resource and Environment Crime Suppression Department.

Some of the ivory imported -- sometimes delivered without even being cleaned of the elephant's blood -- is destined for the Thai market.

Certain "businessmen or senior government officers" in the kingdom like to hang large mammals' tusks on their walls as a symbol of their power, notes Seri Thaijongrak, director of the Royal Thai Customs' investigation bureau.

Tourists also enjoy looking at the jewels and small animals carved by specialist craftsmen in northern Nakhon Sawan province, who worked traditionally with the ivory of Thailand's native elephants.

Thailand's ivory sculpting tradition started in the late 19th century when an estimated 100,000 elephants roamed the kingdom. Since then most have been lost to poachers and the clearing of their forest habitat.

Now just a few thousand remain -- many of them working in the tourism industry -- and the ivory traffickers have turned to the pachyderms' African cousins to meet considerable Asian demand.

Benefiting from its location, Thailand exports much of the ivory, rough or carved, to China -- where it is traditionally used in medicinal powders -- and Japan. But some also ends up in the United States and Europe.

Critics say the authorities need to take tougher action.

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