Lao police are investigating a local businessmen thought to be behind the country’s illegal ivory trade after Thai authorities seized a U.S. $6 million tusk shipment from Kenya en route to the Southeast Asian nation last month, a Lao police officer involved in the investigation said.
Thai customs authorities seized the more than three tons of ivory at Leam Chaban, the country’s largest port, en route to Laos, where it likely would have been sold to affluent Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai nationals.
“We are now thoroughly investigating [the current case], but cannot identify the suspected groups," a Lao police officer who declined to be named told RFA’s Lao Service. “Those involved in the case are the rich, and they will continue exporting ivory to China and other countries.”
Because of lax law enforcement in Laos, customs officials usually do not thoroughly investigate illegal wildlife smuggling cases, he said.
As a result, Laos has become a major transit point used by transnational crime networks for large volumes of illicit wildlife products, including ivory.
But not all of the ivory smuggled into Laos gets shipped on to buyers in neighboring countries, the official said.
“Some of it is sold to the wealthy and some Lao politicians who popularly use them as home decorations based on their beliefs,” he said, adding that ivory ornaments can sell for upwards of 30 million kip (U.S. $3,700).
In the past, there have been cases of illegal ivory smuggling inside Laos, the officer said, although it is chiefly a transnational crime.
“Smugglers have strong networks throughout the world,” he said.
Those involved in the current case are the wealthy, he said, and they will continue exporting the ivory to China and other countries.
Lack of legal enforcement
Laos became a member of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a multilateral treaty protecting endangered plants and animals, in May 2004. The convention banned the ivory trade in 1989.
Lao officials, however, do not strictly implement or enforce laws prohibiting the smuggling of illegal wildlife, the officer said. Furthermore, they can easily be bought off.
“Ivory as well as other illegal items are easily transported through Laos because the smugglers pay some officials bribes,” he said.
The involvement of Lao politicians in the trade of illegal ivory and other wildlife parts is an additional hindrance.
“In terms of the legislation, [the CITES convention] it is not upheld because the smugglers are able to deal with politicians and high-ranking officials through a conspiracy,” a legal expert, who declined to be named, told RFA.
A World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) official told RFA that ivory from domestic elephants is sold in the northern Sayaboury and central Savannakhet provinces of Laos.
“There is a lack of officers to beef up security to protect wild elephants,” he said. “That’s why the elephants are killed for ivory smuggling.”
Over the past two years, the WWF has proposed that the Lao government deploy officers in the forest to protect the elephants, whose population is decreasing.
The current number of wild elephants in Laos is around 1,000, and their populations are endangered, the WWF official said.
Way to reach rich buyers
Yet, increasingly Laos is being used by international smugglers as a way to reach ivory buyers in bordering countries.
The ivory shipment that Thai customs officials seized a week ago was hidden in a shipment of tea leaves from Kenya. The previous week, they had seized four tones of ivory concealed in sacks of dried beans that originated in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Both shipments were bound for Laos where the tusks would likely be sold to affluent Asians in bordering countries where ivory decorations are popular despite the endangered existence of the wild African elephants from which they come.
Thailand can sell registered ivory from domestic elephants, but not serve as a laundering site and transit point for poached African ivory.
China, the world’s largest importer of smuggled ivory, imposed a one-year ban on ivory imports amid criticism that its growing demand for tusks threatened African elephants with extinction.
Reported by Aphichart Sopapong for RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.