Laos has emerged as a hub for the international illicit elephant ivory trade, with large shipments of products made from the tusks of the majestic creatures heading to China, according to a new study released Tuesday.
Based on a survey by wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic, 2,493 pieces of ivory, including jewelry and raw tusks, were found openly on sale in 24 retail outlets mostly in the capital Vientiane, compared to just over 100 ivory items observed in nine shops in 2002, the network said in a report.
Information from vendors in the August 2011 survey indicated that the ivory originated from local elephants in Laos while prices were advertised in U.S. dollars or Chinese yuan rather than in the Laotian kip, clearly suggesting an international clientele, a fact confirmed by most vendors, according to the report.
Recent seizures' data also suggest that Laos may be playing a transit country role for African ivory.
"The seizure of ivory from Africa en route to Lao PDR, which was confiscated in Kenya and Thailand, points to an emerging role for Lao PDR in the international ivory market," the report said.
"Assuming dealers were truthful when stating that ivory for sale in Lao PDR originated from local elephants, this suggests that Lao PDR may be acting as a gateway for African ivory to enter East Asian markets, particularly China, rather than serve as a point of sale for African ivory," it said.
Landlocked Laos is situated between the world’s largest ivory traders Thailand and China. The country's dwindling Asian elephants are “totally protected” by the government with no trade in them, or their parts, allowed.
Traffic said that as Chinese and Vietnamese authorities increasingly interdict ivory items through targeted law enforcement actions, it is "very possible" that Laos is now being used as an "alternative terrestrial route" into China’s Yunnan province.
Recently, authorities seized ivory products in the Chinese city of Jinghong, north of Muang Sing, and just 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the Sino-Lao border.
"Laos is playing a more prominent role in the international ivory trade than was previously thought, especially as a conduit for large shipments to China," the report said.
Laos has escaped much of the negative attention its neighbors, especially China and Thailand, have suffered on account of their major domestic ivory markets, carving industries and role in the global illegal ivory trade.
However, data from the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS), a database of worldwide elephant product seizures managed by Traffic on behalf of Parties to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) implicates Laos as the destination in four large seizures made between 2009 and 2011, totaling more than four tons of ivory, the report said.
"Lao PDR certainly functions as a transit point for ivory heading to China and Thailand, but it may also be emerging as a final destination as the latest Traffic survey indicates a growing market for ivory products."
The report recommends the confiscation of all ivory on sale in Laos, better monitoring of markets, and greater enforcement and prosecution of offenders. It also urges international cooperation to sever the illicit Africa-to-Asia ivory trade chain.
Last month Gabon publicly destroyed its audited ivory stockpiles and sent a strong signal of zero tolerance towards elephant poaching in West Africa.
“While Gabon set an example to the world in destroying its audited ivory, it is vital nothing happens to seized ivory stocks in Asia prior to exhausting all investigative channels,” said Chris R. Shepherd, Deputy Director of Traffic Southeast Asia.
“Countries in Asia must do their part to help African countries shut down the illegal ivory supply chain by finding out how the ivory got to them and who was responsible for bringing it there.”
“Elephant poaching is at crisis levels and demands a coordinated global response.”
Reported by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.