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In November 2014, Trang Nguyen was preparing a survey to study the scope of Cambodia’s domestic ivory market. That year, three major busts – including one in which more than three tons of African ivory were seized at Sihanoukville Autonomous Port – had put the Kingdom back on the radar as a potential hub for ivory trafficking. As the poaching of Cambodia’s elephants has slowed since the early 2000s, so too has the sale of ivory in local markets. In 2013, the NGO TRAFFIC announced there was “falling demand” for ivory in the country after surveying local markets.
But Nguyen, a Vietnamese conservationist and a researcher at the University of Cambridge, suspected that the current influx of Chinese tourists to Cambodia might have refueled the local trade. So that November, before conducting her study, she hopped on a Chinese tour bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh.
As the grand finale of the tour, the bus stopped at a hulking jewelry shop on Monivong Boulevard that also sold antiques and other luxury decorative items. Among them: large amounts of ivory on full display. “People were really openly trading ivory and openly talking about it,” she says. “I wasn’t working on the project yet but I wanted to see what would happen. There were Chinese tourists who had already bought ivory from somewhere and they were showing it off to the seller, saying ‘Oh, I bought this one. It’s a lot better than what you are offering.’”
Eight months later, Nguyen, in partnership with Fauna and Flora International, did a systematic survey of stores in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. She would tell shop owners that she was looking for ivory for her grandfather in Vietnam, who she told them works as an ivory carver. Because of stricter enforcement in Vietnam, she would say, she was looking for a business partner in Cambodia to get material back across the border. “Sometimes they’re not really interested, especially the Chinese. They just care if you buy it or not. But for the Cambodians, some of the places where they carve ivory or they have connections to the carving workshop would be like ‘oh, how much do you want to buy? What kind of ivory are you looking for?’
On her first survey, conducted over two weeks in July 2015, Nguyen says that she was surprised by the relative scarcity of shops selling real ivory. Whereas in 2013 TRAFFIC researchers had found 48 stores in the capital selling ivory openly and just three in Siem Reap, Nguyen found 10 in the summer of 2015 in Phnom Penh and five in Siem Reap. This was a huge drop from the 55 stores surveyed in the capital in 2002. “I was expecting to see more the first time,” she said. At the beginning of this year, she repeated the study and found that the local ivory market is changing drastically. “The second time I was surprised because it’s grown so quickly.”
In just under six months, the number of stores selling real ivory in Phnom Penh had jumped to 16 and to eight in Siem Reap. Most troubling to Nguyen, the number of items per store had increased, indicating that ivory was becoming more and more lucrative for store owners, who had beefed up their inventory. Of the stores, Nguyen estimates that more than half were Chinese owned, and even the local shops would have signs written in Chinese, suggesting they are targeting the nearly 700,000 Chinese tourists that visited Cambodia in 2015.
Ivory store owners and carvers inhabit a legal grey area that largely protects them from crackdowns. While cross-border trading of ivory is illegal, the possession and use of ivory from domestic elephants that have been held in captivity is legal. Without DNA testing, definitively proving the origin of a piece of ivory is impossible.
As Nguyen notes in her report, which has been submitted for publication, there are only around 70 elephants in captivity in the country. “If the seller claims that [the ivory] is from domestic elephants in captivity then it’s still legal to sell,” she says. But there’s no way that they can have that amount [from domestic elephants].”
Whereas the tusks of Asian elephants are relatively small, Nguyen says that many of the pieces she saw in stores were from very wide tusks. “Some of the ivory is huge,” she said. “Obviously it comes from Africa.” While carvers do still exist in Cambodia, Nguyen gathered from talking to sellers that the workmanship here is considered of low quality. Because of this, Nguyen says it is likely that much of the raw ivory passes from Africa and through Cambodia to Vietnam, where it is carved, before crossing the border again into Cambodia, where it is sold.
“It’s very risky. You have to take it out of the country multiple times,” she said. “But obviously they can do it.”
While there are still gaps in enforcement, in recent years local authorities have made a number of high-profile busts of ivory traders both entering and leaving Cambodia. In February 2014, two Vietnamese men were caught at Siem Reap airport trying to leave the country with 79 kilograms of ivory. Three months later, Sihanoukville customs officers found two shipping containers full of African ivory, and earlier this year a Vietnamese national arriving from Angola was charged with smuggling elephant tusks and other animal parts.
After $300,000 of ivory destined for Siem Reap were seized at Bangkok’s International airport in July 2014, James Compton, the Asia Pacific director of wildlife trade for TRAFFIC, suggested that it was time to take a look at Cambodia as an ivory destination. “There’s been at least three important or significant busts of ivory, both by sea, by air and by road, coming into Cambodia this year,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “And I think that brings up a lot of questions about how the trade dynamics are changing.”
While the busts are a sign that law enforcement is stepping up efforts to stop illegal trafficking, they also potentially indicate that traders are eyeing Cambodia as a soft spot for ivory. The designation of Cambodia as “of importance to watch” under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), alongside Laos, means that it is not currently a major player in the international ivory trade, but has the potential to be. Neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, on the other hand, are listed in the highest tier, of “primary concern”. A signatory to the Cites agreement, Cambodia has put together a National Ivory Action Plan, under the Forestry Administration and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, which should be implemented by the end of this year. Nguyen hopes that her research will influence the government to crack down on illegal ivory sales.
On a recent afternoon, there seemed to be little need for secrecy at stores selling ivory in Phnom Penh. At one, across the street from Russian Market, employees ushered me into a back room when I asked if they sold ivory. Two tusks for $3000 each were on sale and the shelves were lined with ivory pendants and jewelry. One ivory pendant with a Buddha carved into it was quoted at $280, but the clerk promised to “make discount”. Across town, inside a nondescript store near Central Market, Yi Bunhwa proudly discussed his spiritual connection with the ivory that he carves. “Elephants and Khmer people are like this,” he said, clasping his hands together. “Cambodian ivory can protect you from enemies.” Bunhwa uses what looks like a dentist drill to carve intricate ivory pendants, like one of Ganesha that he displays at his work station. He insists that his ivory is sourced legally from captive elephants and says that business these days is good.
“If someone kills an elephant then I will kill him,” he says, before explaining that owning and carving ivory is a pastime to be cherished. “We need to keep this treasure that is part of the country.”