- The Washington Times - Friday, July 5, 2002

PAYUHA KHIRI, Thailand Scrutinizing the logo of the Liverpool soccer team, Amnuay Chansonthima foresees a hefty profit.
Mr. Amnuay, 52, is neither a gambler nor a businessman involved in sports. He's one of Thailand's most skilled ivory carvers.
And with soccer's World Cup being held in Asia last month, the craftsman was carving ivory belt buckles with the logos of British soccer teams. Buckles of various materials with logos of soccer teams have long been popular among Thais.
Soccer buckles are just a fraction of the work that comes Mr. Amnuay's way. And it's only a blip in the illegal international ivory trade in which Thailand has emerged as a key culprit.
Save the Elephants, a nongovernmental group based in Nairobi, Kenya, recently accused Thailand of being Asia's largest buyer of illegal African ivory, which is carved into Buddha statues, rings, chopsticks, bangles and other items sold to tourists and businessmen from Asia, Europe and the United States.
Vietnam was branded as another major importer of raw African ivory, but the study excluded China and Japan, which are reported to be the two largest consumers of processed ivory. Experts say the extent of the illegal trade in those two countries is difficult to gauge.
The Nairobi group's study, conducted between November 2000 and March 2001, found 105,000 ivory items on sale in eight Asian countries. Of those, 88,000 were spotted in Thailand.
A survey by the World Wildlife Fund Thailand during the same period found that jewelry, trinkets and other items with ivory components were among the top three sellers in 266 souvenir shops nationwide.
Thailand is a signatory of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which banned trade in ivory in 1989 after a wholesale slaughter of African elephants by poachers in the 1970s and '80s.
But experts say corruption, legal loopholes, outdated laws and lack of skilled enforcement allow the smuggling and processing of ivory to flourish in Thailand.
Thailand allows trade in ivory taken from domesticated elephants within the country, which are registered as beasts of burden rather than wildlife.
Some officials deny that illegal ivory is a big problem in Thailand. Sunggorn Puengpradit, a Customs Department official, says once-rampant smuggling has been curbed, with less than 3,000 pounds of ivory worth $165,000 seized during the past decade.
He says smuggling by diplomats, which was also cited in the Nairobi report, remains the only channel that has not been blocked.
Yet here in Payuha Khiri, 130 miles north of the Thai capital, Bangkok, carvers seem to enjoy a steady supply of African elephant tusks. The area has gained a reputation as a home of the finest craftsmanship in ivory and as a center of the trade.
Protests by conservationists have made traders more careful, but business does not appear to have slowed. "I have to work every day to finish orders on time," Mr. Amnuay said.
He says he doesn't know how the ivory finds its way to his workbench, but says 90 percent of it comes from African elephants, with the rest from the Asian species.
"Raw ivory without a cavity is worth about 7,000 baht [$165] a kilo [2.2 pounds]," Mr. Amnuay said as he carefully took a small piece of bloodstained tusk from a drawer to work on.
Ivory from Asian elephants fetches an even higher price, because of its finer texture, warmer tone and rarity.
Officials say that despite the relative openness of places like Payuha Khiri, rooting out illegal ivory is difficult.
"Store owners show us a yellowish, smelly document about an elephant that died 24 years ago, saying all their products are made of legal ivory," said Thanit Palasuwan, who heads the Forestry Department's Wildlife Protection Unit.
Mr. Thanit says his unit does not have the resources to investigate the origins of ivory items.
He also says that regardless of the appearance of a piece, some carved items are made not of ivory but of resin or elephant bones.
It is hard to halt smuggling at airports and harbors, where the Customs Department prohibits outside experts or anyone else from being with its officers during inspections of imported goods.
The rule is meant to prevent collusion between customs officers and illegal importers. But cases of corruption and bribery surface frequently within the Customs Department, Forestry Department and virtually every government agency.
Mr. Thanit believes Asians, rather than Westerners, play the biggest role in despoiling elephant populations.
Africa's elephants number about a half-million, but the Asian species in the wild has dwindled to between 35,000 and 50,000 and is still falling. Some fear the wild Asian elephant is headed for extinction.
The Kenya Wildlife Service says 57 Kenyan elephants were killed for their ivory last year. A further 18 were found slaughtered in May in protected areas. Because of poaching, Kenya's herds dwindled from 167,000 in 1973 to 16,000 in 1989, and the number has risen only slightly since the trade ban.
For this reason, Kenya opposes even a partial lifting of the ivory-trade ban, while Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, whose herds are booming, want to sell off stocks of ivory taken from culling to pay for wildlife management.
Jewelry, seals and other elaborately carved ivory pieces have been prized for centuries in many Asian countries and can be found in shops from Nepal to South Korea.


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