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The Market for Elephant Exotics is Exploding in China and Vietnam

June 15, 2018 china Ivory ivory trade Vietnam

Scientists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) have found that poaching is an emerging crisis for Asian elephants in Myanmar. Previously, female Asian elephants were generally protected from slaughter in the wild as illegal demand was only for the ivory of the males. By accident, researchers became aware of the crisis as they were conducting an unrelated telemetry study in which they fitted nineteen Asian elephants with satellite GPS collars to better understand elephant movements and reduce human-elephant conflict. At the time, it was believed that such conflict situations represented the greatest threat to the wild elephant population though now it appears that poaching to obtain body parts and meat is the more serious concern.

Seven of the nineteen elephants fitted with the GPS collars were poached within a year. Over the past two years a total of nineteen elephants were poached in the immediate region of the study and an additional forty cases were documented across the southern central region of the country. Since the poachers desired exotic products are elephant skin, tails and meat, there is no discrimination between males, females or young calves. Therefore, given the slow reproduction cycle of elephants, the consequences to the wild elephant population could be devastating.

Recently, two residents of Myanmar were arrested by Thai police with 24 elephant tusks and 16 elephant tails in a random check of their truck in the Tak Mae Sot district on the border with Myanmar. Mae Sot has traditionally been a popular smuggling location for gemstones and narcotics but the demand for elephant exotics is changing the product mix.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species or CITES created an anti-trafficking structure but it is most difficult for law enforcement to keep up with animal trafficking. This criminal activity generates some $23 billion per year in revenue representing the fourth most lucrative smuggling activity behind drugs, people, and arms. However, there is hope for change as an increasing number of NGO's are hiring former law enforcement officers to apply their skill sets to the challenge.

In fact, Thai police recently arrested one of the world's most notorious wildlife traffickers, Boonchai Bach. He is shown below posing with some of his illicit African ivory in his Nakhon Phanom operational base in northeast Thailand which is conveniently close to Laos. The Bachs are thought to supply Vixay Keosavang, southeast Asia's most prominent wildlife dealer who is located out of the reach of the law in Laos.

Boonchai Bach and his older brother, Bach Van Limh were identified for the first time in a 2016 Guardian newspaper investigation as likely key smugglers operating a criminal syndicate responsible for devasting the populations of endangered animals. Steven Galster, founder of the Bangkok-based anti-trafficking organization, Freeland, said the arrest was historic. He said "It is like catching one of the Corleones," referring to the fictional mafia family.

The seizure occurred at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport and represented a historic event in curtailing wildlife crime. The preferred smuggling routes into the burgeoning markets of Vietnam and China are Cambodia and Laos due to corruption and weak law enforcement though logistically Bangkok provides greater access to international African flights. Although China is officially taking a more proactive stance in support of CITES, more affluent younger people are keen to eat wild meat and experiment with the alleged medicinal value of such foolish things like rhino horn. Surveillance, enforcement and education are critical to saving endangered wildlife species.

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