The Lao Peoples Democratic Republic recently became the latest of the countries most implicated in the illicit trafficking of elephant tusks to be let off the hook.
Here’s the background.
At the 16th meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Conference of the Parties, in Bangkok, Thailand, in March 2013, 22 countries involved in the illegal trade in ivory were identified.
They were categorized as of: “primary concern” (eight: China, Kenya, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Uganda, Tanzania, and Vietnam); “secondary concern” (eight: Cameroon, Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gabon, Mozambique, and Nigeria); and “importance to watch” (three: Angola, Cambodia, and Lao People’s Democratic Republic).
CITES recommended that effective May 2014, 19 of the countries implement national ivory action plans (NIAPs) “to strengthen their controls of the trade in ivory and ivory markets, and help combat the illegal trade in ivory.”
Each plan had to outline urgent measures to combat illegal trafficking and poaching, “including legislative, enforcement and public awareness actions as required along with specified timeframes and milestones for implementation.”
Countries of primary concern, such as China and Tanzania, and their NIAPs are well documented.
But countries of secondary concern and importance to watch have begun making headlines, both for their increasing involvement in ivory trafficking and for their non-compliance with CITES’s recommendations to submit NIAPs.
The NIAPs of all eight countries of secondary concern and three of the six deemed important to watch were due to the CITES Secretariat by October 31, 2014.
The penalty for not meeing the deadline was to be a trade ban on all wildlife products.
In mid-January 2015, the Secretariat sent warning letters to Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Laos, and Nigeria for their failure to submit plans.
On March 6, 2015, the Secretariat issued a similar warning letter to Angola. Congo and Angola have since complied.
On March 19, the Secretariat finally issued notifications to all CITES members that they should “suspend commercial trade in CITES-listed specimens” with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Laos, and Nigeria.
On April 6, DRC submitted a NIAP.
Laos, the destination of three huge shipments of illegal ivory intercepted in Thailand so far this year, produced its NIAP on September 4.
As a result, “with immediate effect,” the Secretariat reversed the trade suspension on DRC and Laos. Now only Nigeria remains subject to a trade ban.
Records Speak for Themselves
Recent analyses by TRAFFIC, a joint program of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN), in close cooperation with the CITES Secretariat, highlighted nine high-value international wildlife seizures destined for Laos in 2014 and three in 2015.
The ivory seizure in Thailand on April 18, 2015—a shipment that originated in DRC—was, according to Reuters, the largest in Thailand’s history, with more than 700 tusks. Their estimated value: U.S. $6 million.
The latest CITES Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) report states that DRC is now one of the biggest suppliers of illegal ivory.
Laos, meanwhile, has become one of the major transit points for ivory as well as a variety of exotic and endangered animals.
But the country, which is run by an authoritarian communist government, hasn’t reported a single major wildlife seizure since 1989. An article in the New York Times in August said it “stands out as a bastion of impunity.”
Steven Galster, the executive director of Freeland, a countertrafficking organization, told the newspaper that “criminal gangs take advantage of the weak rule of law in Laos. It’s pretty clear that Vietnamese and Chinese crooks are using Laos as their preferred staging and transit ground these days.”
Part of the problem has been that customs agents in Thailand—also a major illegal ivory transit country—were long legally prevented from opening and inspecting shipments without permission from the destination country.
That changed this March when the laws were revised to allow such inspections.
Even so, Thai officials have yet to charge, let alone arrest, a single Laotian perpetrator implicated in the recent seizures—largely because Laotian authorities have been uncooperative.
Chamroen Photiyod, the deputy director general of Thailand’s customs authority, said that after X-ray inspection of a shipment of beans on April 18 exposed a record consignment of tusks, his department contacted the Laotian embassy in Bangkok out of “diplomatic etiquette.”
But the embassy official insisted that the packages be left unopened and shipped to Laos without delay.
“They were really upset with us,” Chamroen told the New York Times. “They did not want to give us permission to open it.”
Thai officials ignored their pleas and opened the packages anyway. When Laotian officials were confronted with the discovery, they said they would investigate.
But so far, if an investigation is indeed under way, it has yielded nothing. Meanwhile, the seized tusks are being held in a Thai government warehouse in Bangkok.
CITES: Where’s the Bite?
The latest figures released by CITES’s program for Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) indicate that overall elephant poaching rates at monitored sites remained virtually unchanged in 2014 compared to the previous year.
Poaching rates significantly exceed natural elephant population growth rates, meaning that, continent-wide, elephant numbers keep falling.
According to Julian Blanc, head of the MIKE program, “These poaching trends highlight the need to redouble efforts to mitigate the problem.”
Could CITES have done more to penalize Laos and DRC for their delay in issuing NIAPs? And can CITES do anything to punish countries not carrying out the provisions in their NIAPs?
According to CITES General Secretary John Scanlon, CITES could enforce a total trade ban if countries don’t adhere to their plans, which, he says, are “a forum where binding decisions are taken, and governments will be held to account for these.”
But, Scanlon adds, “a lot of those decisions need high-level political buy-in.”
Scanlon’s insinuation is that CITES won’t enforce punitive action against Laos and DRC—that they’d submitted their NIAPs was enough for a lifting of trade bans, irrespective of the delay or a lack of clear disposition from either country to implement them effectively.
And yet, Scanlon notes, these two countries “remain a real concern.”
Adam Cruise specializes in writing about wildlife conservation and wildlife crime in Africa.@adamjcruise