Asia Minute: Science Fighting Ivory Smuggling in Thailand


Bill Dorman, Hawai Public Radio

Date Published

See link for audio.

One measure working its way through Hawai‘i’s current legislative session would ban the sale of ivory in the state. This week, authorities announced they’d seized nearly a million dollars of elephant tusks in a Southeast Asian country that’s long been a part of the illegal ivory trade. HPR’s Bill Dorman has more in today’s Asia Minute.

Bangkok’s International Airport has already been the scene of five seizures of elephant tusks this year.  The latest was announced this week—87 tusks weighing nearly 700 pounds.  The director-general of the Thai Customs Department says a routine airport x-ray found them in a dozen barrels sent from Mozambique.  A bit of detective work then sent authorities elsewhere in Africa to a location where another 12,000 pounds of tusks were waiting to be shipped to Thailand—which is a popular destination for smuggled ivory.

Domesticated elephants are still used in Thailand—from hauling logs to carrying people.  Under Thai law, it is legal to buy and sell ivory from those animals—about 13,000 elephants.   That’s made Thailand a target country for black market ivory—because it’s difficult to tell the difference between illegal tusks from African elephants….and potentially legal tusks from Asian elephants.

That may be changing, thanks to technology.  National Geographic reports a hand-held scanner under development by Thai scientists will be able to tell whether ivory comes from an African or Asian elephant.  It would still take another level to determine whether the tusk comes from a domesticated elephant and is therefore legal….but advocates fighting smuggling say it could have a “significant impact” on the black market for ivory.