The shipment of 239 tusks originated in South Africa and arrived in Thailand on an Emirates flight from Dubai destined for Laos. Acting on a tip, officials arrested a Thai national when he tried to pick up the cargo, labeled "mobile phone parts," at Suvarnabhumi Airport.
The seized ivory, weighing 2,075 kilos, has an estimated sale value of 120 million baht (US$3.6 million).
Customs official Seree Thaijongrak said this is "the biggest seizure we have ever had." He said smuggling of ivory from Africa is on the rise in Thailand, as it is in much of Southeast Asia.
Thaijongrak said the seizure shows that Thailand is becoming a key transit point for shipments from Africa to supply the demand for ivory goods in China, Europe and the United States.
Elephant with giant tusks in Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater (Photo by Mr~Poussnik)
Conservationists say the seizure is evidence that there has been an increase in illegal trafficking because Parties to the UN's Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, may approve additional legal trading in ivory at their upcoming meeting March 13-25 in Doha, Qatar.
Governments that are Parties to the CITES treaty meet about every three years to set rules for international trade in wildlife species and their parts, including elephants.
CITES Parties banned trade in elephant ivory in 1989 by placing elephants on Appendix I of the treaty, which prohibits trading. Before the ban, illegal and legal ivory exports amounted to an estimated 770 metric tonnes or 75,000 elephants, annually.
In addition to the ban, current CITES rules also include a nine-year moratorium from 2007 on trade in ivory from elephant populations already in Appendix II, which allows trading under a permit system.
CITES meetings have been bitterly divided over elephant conservation and international trade in ivory. Elephant range countries with large government-held stockpiles of ivory want to sell the valuable material legally.
A group of other countries, and many conservationists, oppose legal ivory sales believing that they provide a cover for illegal elephant poaching and illegal ivory sales.
Cynthia Moss of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Kenya sums up the conservationist viewpoint, saying, "It is very discouraging having to fight the battle to save elephants once again. The 1989 ban helped elephants to recover in most parts of Africa. Now even in Amboseli we're losing elephants to ivory poachers for the first time in many years. The sale of any ivory, legal or not, is creating demand. No one needs ivory. It is a beautiful substance, but the only ones who need it are elephants."
At the upcoming CITES meeting in Doha, Tanzania and Zambia are seeking authorization to trade in some 110 metric tonnes of legally stockpiled ivory.
Another proposal submitted by the Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Rwanda and Sierra Leone opposes such trade for at least 20 years. This proposal would extend the nine-year moratorium to all elephant populations and eliminate export of worked ivory products from Namibia and Zimbabwe.
The debate between the opposing sides has been so hot and heavy that CITES Secretary-General Willem Wijnstekers says it has "degenerated into some unwarranted and unjustified attacks upon the objectivity of the UN's CITES Secretariat."
In an unusual letter of clarification posted on the CITES website, Wijnstekers said Friday, "a number of published statements bringing the Secretariat into disrepute that cannot be allowed to go unchallenged."
Wijnstekers deals with three allegations claiming that the CITES Secretariat is biased in favor of legal ivory trading.
He says the nine year moratorium decision was adopted on the basis of a written document submitted by Chad and Zambia on behalf of Africa that was drafted on the sidelines of the 2007 CITES meeting by the African elephant range states themselves.
"The CITES Secretariat was not involved at all in its drafting. Consequently, the allegations I have read, which suggest that the Secretariat somehow manipulated the wording to alter the scope of a moratorium, are wholly without foundation," said Wijnstekers.
Wijnstekers says although the Secretariat has commented on the proposal to stop ivory trading for 20 years, he is waiting to comment on the proposals of Tanzania and Zambia for an expert report due in the next few days.
The Panel of Experts was convened on the instructions of the 2007 Conference of the Parties to evaluate factors on the ground in Tanzania and Zambia such as elephant population numbers, conservation management measures and trade controls.
"Immediately thereafter, as required in the text of the Convention, the Secretariat will provide its comments on the proposals submitted by those two countries," Wijnstekers said.
"Whatever the Secretariat's final comments on the proposals may be, they will be based upon objective assessments, using the criteria that CITES Parties themselves have adopted and that reflect the provisions and principles of the Convention," pledged Wijnstekers. "Here again, the Secretariat has been and continues to be entirely impartial."
African Elephants currently live in 37 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Red List of Threatened Species maintained by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, lists African elephants as Near Threatened based on an "inferred decline" of 25 percent in elephant numbers between 1979 and 2007 but does not give population numbers.
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