BANGKOK – You can buy it freely in urban markets and rural stalls set up at elephant shows in Thailand every day: ivory, carved into everything from intricate statuettes of the pachyderm-headed Hindu deity Ganesh that go for more than $1,000 a piece to tiny tusk pendants worth less than $10.
But the thriving trade here, conservationists say, is helping fuel the unprecedented slaughter of elephants thousands of miles away in Africa, where the largest land mammals on earth are facing their worst poaching epidemic in decades. It's a crisis so grave experts now believe more are being killed than are being born.
How to slow the slaughter and curb the trade in "blood ivory" will be among the most critical issues up for debate at the 177-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, that gets under way Sunday in Bangkok. And Thailand, which is hosting the meeting, will be under particular pressure to take action.
That's because this Southeast Asian country is notorious not only as a major hub for illegally trafficked wildlife; it's also where much of the ivory smuggled out of Africa ends up — a destination second worldwide only to China, according to the wildlife monitoring network, TRAFFIC.
"Instead of being part of the problem, the Thai government can be part of the solution by banning ivory sales" altogether within its borders, said Janpai Ongsiriwittaya of the World Wildlife Fund.
Last week, the conservation group presented a global petition with more than half a million signatures to Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, calling on her government to do just that. The trade is currently legal here as long as it involves tusks that came from native herds that have been domesticated.
Yingluck responded by saying she recognized the importance of elephant conservation and would take the plea into consideration. Thai wildlife officials have said previously that an all-out ban on ivory is not possible because those Thais who legitimately own domesticated animals should also have the right to buy and sell tusks locally.
The problem, though, is that once ivory enters Thai markets — legally or not — it's tough to figure out where it came from. Nevertheless, "most of the supply we see in Thai markets is illegally smuggled in from Africa," Janpai said.
And "once tourists buy it, sellers claim it's legal, and nobody can prove otherwise," she said. "The more Thailand keeps allowing these legal loopholes to be exploited, the more we'll see smuggled African ivory laundered thru Thailand, and the more African elephants will be killed because of it."
Thailand itself is home to only about 6,500 elephants, of which 2,500 are wild and off-limits. Of the remaining 4,000, only 1,500 are males that produce tusks, and many grow only one in their lifetimes. By contrast, there are an estimated 5,000 ivory traders doing business in the country, far more than the minute local supply should be able to support, Janpai said.
Dealing with the elephant crisis is just one of a plethora of biodiversity issues that will be discussed at CITES over the next two weeks. Around 70 proposals are on the table, most of which will decide whether member nations increase or lower the level of protection on various species. They include polar bears, rays and sharks that are heavily fished for shark fin soup. There are proposals, too, to regulate 200 commercially valuable timber species, and ban their trade unless it can be shown they were harvested legally and sustainably.
Prior to the establishment of CITES in 1973, there was no international regulation of the world wildlife trade.
One of the convention's success stories since then has been the African rhino, which numbered just 2,000 four decades ago. The population swelled to 25,000, but over the last five years poaching has skyrocketed again. Last year, 668 rhinos were killed in South Africa alone. As with the elephant crisis, the culprit is largely demand from Asia, where their horns are highly desired because they are believed to have medicinal properties.
"You don't have to be a great mathematician to realize that that population is going to start to go into decline," said CITES Director-General John Scanlon. "Within 20 years, you might wipe this species out. So we have to act hard, act fast, act now" to stop it.
Scanlon said the illegal wildlife trade is worth up to $20 billion per year globally. And to control it, the international community has to be willing to "deploy the sorts of techniques that are being deployed with respect to narcotics," he said.
It will also have to do more to stop elephants from being wiped out. Around 70 years ago, up to 5 million elephants are believed to have roamed sub-Saharan Africa. Today, just several hundred thousand are left, 25,000 of which were killed in 2011. Figures for 2012 have yet to be released, but they are believed to be similar to the previous year, or worse, Scanlon said.
Although all African states agree no elephant should be killed for its tusks, there is disagreement over how best to protect the iconic animals. Some argue that legalizing the ivory trade within reason bestows upon the animals a monetary worth that encourages humans to value their survival; others say the only way to stop poaching is to outlaw the sale of ivory everywhere, killing demand and thus ending their slaughter.
Thailand's government says it has done what it can. In the past two years, customs officers here have seized close to 2,000 kilograms (4,409 pounds) of African tusks, sometimes found broken apart into small pieces in failed attempts to avoid detection.
Nevertheless, Thailand remains "the big player in this right now," said William Schaedla, the Southeast Asia director of TRAFFIC. "It's the one place where there is sort of an open door for ivory to come in and be laundered ... because the laws here allow a legal domestic trade and there are no checks on whether the ivory is African or Asian once it's in the country."
TRAFFIC has called for CITES members to impose trade sanctions against Thailand — along with Nigeria and Congo — alleging they are complicit in the illegal ivory trade.
"There's certainly an issue here, it's been dealt with more slowly than many would like," Scanlon said. But sanctions, he said, were premature and Thailand needs to be given the opportunity to put in place new measures to ensure they are "not allowing laundered African ivory into this system."