New research shows Laos is now the fastest growing ivory market in the world

Date Published

Thursday 28 September, 2017: The Southeast Asian nation of Laos is now the fastest-growing ivory market in the world, according to a new publication by Save The Elephants.

Their new report published today, (subs: 28 September, 2017) states that the retail ivory market in Laos has increased more rapidly than in any other country surveyed in the last three years (2013 – 2016).

The report ‘The ivory trade of Laos: now the fastest growing in the world’, by Save The Elephants’ consultants Lucy Vigne and Esmond Martin, shows that the number of Chinese-owned retail outlets selling ivory in this Southeast Asian country has increased considerably since 2013. Mainland Chinese visitors are now buying more than 80% of the ivory seen for sale in Laos where retail prices are considerably lower than in China.

This pattern was found in their earlier studies in Hong Kong (2015), and Vietnam (2016), where over 75% of the buyers were mainland Chinese visitors smuggling ivory back home. China remains the main end user of raw and worked ivory as recorded in monographs produced in 2014 and earlier this year.

The amount of worked ivory smuggled into Laos for the retail market, especially from poached African elephants, has increased significantly since 2013. Save The Elephants has previously expressed concerns about fringe markets springing up to supply illegal ivory items mainly to the Chinese and called for a coordinated approach amongst governments to halt the illegal ivory supply chain. The growing retail ivory market in Laos is the latest threat to Africa’s elephants.

“With a lack of strong and continuing international pressure to curtail the trade in ivory in Laos, and a lack of interest by the Laotian government, there has been a significant and relatively sudden growth in the ivory trade in the country,” says Lucy Vigne, the lead author of the report. “This has been fuelled by a substantial growth in the number of Chinese-owned shops selling ivory items primarily to Chinese visitors to Laos since 2013. Laos urgently needs to take steps to tackle this growing problem.”

The STE researchers found that ivory items seen for sale in Laos were either carved or machine-processed in Vietnam by Vietnamese and smuggled into Laos for sale, or were processed by Chinese traders in Laos on new computer-driven machines. Ivory also enters Laos illegally from Thailand where Thai traders have been offloading their ivory following the imposition of much stricter regulations there.

In late 2013, the wholesale price of ivory sold by traders in Laos peaked at about USD 2,000/kg while by late 2016, the average price had declined to USD 714/kg. The drop in price was attributed largely to the slowdown in China’s economy. Retail prices for worked ivory are substantially lower in Laos than in China, attracting more Chinese buyers.

In Laos, there is virtually no law enforcement regarding the ivory trade with the Laotian government appearing to turn a blind eye to illegal trafficking. Since Laos joined CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) in 2004, there has been only one ivory seizure reported to The Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) and there have been essentially no arrests, prosecutions or punishments of ivory smugglers.

“In the absence of effective law enforcement, the sales of ivory items to Chinese consumers will continue to rise in line with the anticipated increase in the number of Chinese in Laos and the projected expansion in Chinese investment,” says Esmond Martin.

The researchers visited several areas of Laos and found shops selling the most ivory in Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and the notorious Kings Romans (sic), a favourite gambling destination for mainland Chinese that has a reputation for prostitution and also for illegal endangered wildlife. They saw cages containing tigers and bears whose products are consumed by some of the rich gamblers at the casino resort.

They also saw stores selling small trinkets made from processed elephant ivory, rhino horn and helmeted hornbill. Kings Romans, which caters mostly to wealthier Chinese visitors, had the highest retail prices for ivory items with eight outlets openly selling 1,014 pieces of newly made items.

Elsewhere in Laos, the researchers found another 73 retail outlets with ivory on view for sale and counted another 12,234 ivory items on display with the most common items being pendants, followed by necklaces, bangles, beaded bracelets and other jewellery, as they have recorded in the illegal ivory markets in other countries. The least expensive item was a thin ring for USD 3 while the most expensive was a pair of polished elephant tusks for USD 25,000.

“This report is an alarming illustration of the threat posed by lax enforcement in the countries neighbouring China. The imminent closure of China’s legal ivory trade is putting pressure on traders, moving the market underground and across porous borders. The Chinese Government’s leadership in shutting down the legal trade was of critical importance for the future of elephants, and the momentum must now continue to stamp out the illegal trade,” says Save The Elephants’ founder Iain Douglas-Hamilton.

Key findings from the report:

  • The majority of the ivory items seen for sale were machine-made from ivory mostly obtained via Vietnam and Thailand from recently poached African elephants.
  • Law enforcement is almost totally lacking, with large numbers of ivory items smuggled into Laos, for sale openly in new Chinese shops, sold mainly to Chinese customers.
  • Mainland Chinese buy over 80% of the ivory items in Laos today.
  • In late 2013 the average wholesale price of raw ivory sold by traders in Laos peaked at about USD 2,000/kg in line with prices elsewhere in the region.
  • By late 2016, the average wholesale price of raw ivory in Laos had declined to USD 714/kg, also in line with prices elsewhere in the region, largely due to the slowing of the Chinese economy.
  • The researchers found 81 retail outlets with ivory on view for retail sale, 40 of which were in the capital, Vientiane, 21 in Luang Prabang, 8 in Kings Romans, 5 in Oudom Xay, 3 in Pakse, 2 in Dansavanh Nam Ngum Resort and 2 in Luang Nam Tha.
  • 13,248 ivory items were counted on display for sale, nearly all recently made to suit Chinese tastes.
  • The least expensive item was a thin ring for USD 3 and the most expensive was a pair of polished tusks for USD 25,000.
  • The two main areas in Vientiane and Luang Prabang with Chinese-owned shops selling ivory had increased more than ten-fold from three in 2013 to 35 in 2016.

For more information:

Lucy Vigne, ivory researcher, tel: +254 722 411 037
Esmond Martin, ivory researcher, tel: +254 712 504 191
Email: [email protected]

Tanya Onserio, Communications Assistant, tel: +254 727 276 409
Email: [email protected]

About Save The Elephants (
Save The Elephants works to secure a future for elephants in Africa.  Specializing in elephant research, STE provides scientific insights into elephant behaviour, intelligence, and long-distance movements and applies them to the challenges of elephant survival. To battle the current surge in ivory poaching, our Elephant Crisis Fund is identifying and supporting the most effective partners in Africa and in the ivory consuming nations to stop poaching, thwart illegal traffickers and end demand for blood-stained ivory.