Facing the possibility of sanctions, Thailand's prime minister vowed for the first time 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 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 Sunday's 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 local tusk 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.
Yingluck gave no timeline, though, and 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.
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.
Thai traders currently have the right to buy or sell ivory obtained legally from domesticated stocks, and Theerapat said taking those rights away could be tantamount to the struggle to ban assault weapons 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.
CITES banned the international ivory trade in 1989. But the move never addressed domestic markets like Thailand's, where trading remains legal as long as only ivory from domesticated elephants is involved.
Curbing the trade in "blood ivory" is at the top of the agenda during the global biodiversity conference, which lasts two weeks. Around 70 proposals are on the table, most of which will decide whether member nations increase or lower the level of protection on various species. These include polar bears, rays and sharks that are heavily fished for shark fin soup.
There are proposals, too, to regulate 200 commercially valuable timber species — half from Madagascar — and ban their trade unless it can be shown they were harvested legally and sustainably.
Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, said up to 90 percent of the world's timber trade is illegal, a business worth at least $30 billion per year.
Illegal wildlife trafficking is also at crisis levels, and the world must clamp down hard to stop it or risk losing some of the planet's most iconic species, like elephants, he said.
"The backdrop against which this meeting takes place should be a very serious wakeup call for all of us," Steiner told some 2,000 delegates assembled at a convention center in the Thai capital.
Wildlife trafficking "in a terrible way has become a trade and a business of enormous proportions — a billion-dollar trade in wildlife species that is analogous to that of the trade in drugs and arms," Steiner said. "This is not a small matter. It is driven by a conglomerate of crime syndicates across borders."
Prior to the establishment of CITES in 1973, there was no international regulation of the cross-border wildlife trade. CITES officials say their aim is not to outlaw the buying and selling of flora and fauna, but to ensure it remains sustainable as the world's population explodes.
CITES Director-General John Scanlon said the slaughter of African elephants and rhinos was among the group's greatest concerns. He said poachers, rebel militias and mafia-like crime syndicates that smuggle animal parts across borders could wipe out the species.
"This criminal activity poses a serious threat to the stability and economies of these countries. It also robs these countries of their natural heritage," Scanlon said. "These criminals must be stopped, and we need to prepare to deploy the sorts of techniques that are used to combat the trade in narcotics to do so."
"We know the way. We now need the collective will," Scanlon said. "Right here, right now in Bangkok is when we must come together to turn the tables on serious wildlife crime."