Facing the possibility of sanctions, Thailand's prime minister vowed for the first time Sunday to work toward ending her country's trade in ivory. But she gave no timeline for implementing a domestic ban, and conservationists warned that the unprecedented slaughter of elephants in Africa would continue until she does.
Thailand's internal ivory trade is currently legal, but wildlife groups say smuggled African tusks are mixed in with native stocks and that skyrocketing demand here is helping fuel the worst poaching crisis in sub-Saharan African in two decades.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra made the pledge during the opening meeting of the 178-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, in Bangkok.
She said her government would tighten local controls on Thailand's domestic ivory trade by systematically registering domestic elephants and ivory products. Then, "as a next step, we will work toward amending the national legislation with the goal of putting an end to (the) ivory trade and to be in line with international norms," she said.
However, Theerapat Prayurasiddhi, deputy director of Thailand's department of parks and wildlife, told The Associated Press there were no immediate plans to institute a domestic ban on ivory trading.
He said that could happen "step by step in the future — maybe," but called it "the long-term goal." For now, the government will focus on boosting measures to tighten domestic trade controls and slow the flow of African ivory from entering Thai markets.
Theerapat said Thai traders had the right to buy or sell ivory obtained legally from domesticated stocks, and that taking those rights away could be tantamount to efforts to ban guns in the United States.
"You cannot change everything overnight," he said. "It's going to take time."
Asked how Thailand's legislation might be amended, Theerapat said there was a push to add African elephants to Thailand's own lists of protected species, a move that would allow law enforcement to impose higher fines and harsher jail terms on smugglers.
Carlos Drews, head of the World Wildlife Fund's delegation to CITES, welcomed Yingluck's pledge but said "the fight to stop wildlife crime and shut down Thailand's ivory markets is not over."
Yingluck "now needs to provide a timeline for this ban and ensure that it takes place as a matter of urgency, because the slaughter of elephants continues," Drews said.
Around 70 years ago, up to 5 million elephants are believed to have roamed sub-Saharan Africa. Today, just several hundred thousand are left. Last year, 32,000 elephants were killed on the continent, according to the Born Free Foundation, which says black-market ivory sells for around $1,300 per pound; much of it ends up as tourist trinkets.
Thailand is one of the world's top destinations for smuggled ivory — second only to China, according to the wildlife monitoring network TRAFFIC. The group has called for CITES members to impose economic trade sanctions against Thailand, along with Nigeria and Congo, which would halt those nations' ability to trade in all 35,000 species regulated by the convention.