An unintentional dispute has broken out between two groups who have precisely the same aim. The foreign group has demanded a total ban on ivory. Under its plan, all stocks would be seized, all shops would be immediately shuttered, and all trade would be automatically illegal. The Thai group wants to strengthen oversight, tighten regulations and increase penalties. It wants to supervise a small, legal ivory trade. Neither plan will work.
The major foreign litigants are the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Traffic. We last saw these wildlife monitors last year, at a major UN-sponsored conference on protecting species. At that Cites (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) meeting, then-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra deflected some criticism of the country and kicked the enforcement can down the road by promising new rules to protect elephants within a year or, roughly, right now. Since then, the Ministry of Commerce, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives have been at work.
The result of the inter-bureau efforts has been to toss the problem and suggestions for action to a special agency of yet a fourth ministry. The Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, has unveiled an official plan to help stop elephant poaching — which is the common and positive goal of all those involved in the international and internal disputes.
The department, widely known as the DNP, is the legal agency in charge of this problem, because it is authorised to authenticate the origins of ivory. It is legal to carve and trade ivory from Thai elephants that have died naturally. The DNP proposes to make it completely illegal to use ivory from other elephants. That means that even if smugglers succeed in trafficking ivory from poached elephants into Thailand, the DNP will ensure that such ivory is seized, the smugglers traced and arrested, and the buyers prosecuted for using illegal ivory.
It is an excellent plan that everyone involved knows will fail, either partly or completely. The problem is the human element of the DNP. The department has never properly enforced existing laws on protection of endangered species, including elephants. Simply put, it is too easy to buy fake papers detailing the origins of animals for trafficking.
The WWF-Traffic call for prohibition is also doomed. A total ban on all aspects of ivory trading will have one predictable and fatal result. The trade will move underground, where it will not only flourish but further enrich the major wildlife traffickers and actually increase demand for ivory from slaughtered elephants. If there is one lesson from the battle to contain contain drugs, it is this: A war on ivory will fail.
The DNP’s plan has a germ of logic. Authorities must set a solid goal of halting the ivory trade. But it will take years of education to ease, then end, demand for ivory. In the meantime, the existing legal ivory artisans and traders can continue working. But their professions must operate under heavy and strongly enforced new conditions.
A scientific department of the Ministry of Science and Technology must test and validate all ivory for trade and sale. Any shop or workshop dealing in smuggled ivory must immediately be closed, as its owners and employees are prosecuted. Prison sentences for smuggling ivory and similar products from sensitive species should be increased. Fighting the illicit ivory trade means battling the demand side, meaning China. Attempts to control ivory trafficking only through suppliers will fail as surely as the war on drugs.