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."
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