It was something of a triumph when China announced earlier this year that it was going to enforce a ban on domestic ivory trade.
However, a conservation group that has been studying the situation now says the African elephant is still under threat as the trade shifts to Laos.
Conservationists working under the umbrella of Save the Elephants Foundation said Thursday that as ivory shops and carving factories closed shop in China following the State-sanctioned ban, more were popping up in the tourist markets northwest of Laos on the border of Thailand close to Burma and China.
The ivory researchers who have been trailing the trade in ivory around the world for decades say the Chinese have moved their trade across the border to maintain demand with a long cultural heritage in China, making the southeast Asian country the fastest growing market in the world.
“The retail ivory market in Laos has increased more rapidly than in any other country surveyed in the last three years (2013-2016),” said the report.
Poaching to satisfy demand for ivory by Asian markets has seen the worst declines in Africa’s overall elephant population in the past 10 years.
This still poses a threat to elephants in Africa, where most of the elephant tusks are originating from to sustain trade in the remaining ivory markets around the globe.
A peak in ivory trade in 2010-13 was killing 33,000 African elephants every year.
In 1979, when 1.2 million elephants roamed Africa, Kenya had 167,000, says the Kenya Wildlife Service.
Today, the total elephant population in Kenya is estimated at 38,000, though the situation has improved over the past three years due to law enforcement.
Malawi, Uganda and South Africa too have recorded slight increases. However, Africa in general continues to see a decline in Savannah elephants due to poaching.
Mr Iain Douglas, the founder of Save the Elephants, which supported the surveys, said Kenya had significantly been affected by two previous elephant holocausts caused by the ivory trade — in the 1970s to 1989 and from 2009 to 2014. He says Tsavo National Park still poses huge problems as far as poaching is concerned.
“Although we have had much significant progress in curtailing ivory trade, the elephant is not out of the woods yet,” said Mr Douglas during the launch of a report on the proliferation of the open market in Laos.
China will end its domestic ivory trade by the end of 2017 and has already started shutting down some of the businesses.
“We thought the big China decision was the most important thing because that means that China would no longer import ivory. But now investigations are confirming that most of the traders have gone across the border and are catering to this demand. What we’re seeing is that a place that was a backwater has suddenly became a major market for ivory,” he added.
The conservationists said the world needed to put pressure on the Laos Government and other countries around china, such as Burma and Vietnam, to act on the burgeoning trade, if efforts to conserve the African elephant are going to work.
Lucy Vigne, one of the researchers, said trade in ivory items had increased significantly in Laos where there existed a small ivory trade market between 2013 and 2016.
She said majority of buyers in Laos were visitors from mainland China as the Laotians who treasure their own Asian elephants are not consumers of African elephant ivory.
NO LAW ENFORCEMENT
According to the research, China is the largest consumer of ivory globally and currently consumes close to 80 per cent of all the ivory that leaves Africa.
“The tremendous expansion is because there exists almost no law enforcement on trade in ivory in Laos,” noted Vigne.
Laos has been a member of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) for some years.
Since joining Cites in 2004, only one ivory seizure into Laos has been reported to the Elephant Trade Information System the international scheme that compiles law enforcement data on seizures and confiscations of elephant specimens.
“The Chinese are the biggest problem. They are the ones running poaching syndicates that go all the way to Africa. And they are the buyers of the ivory.”
“We won’t have any breakthrough in conserving elephants unless we break these syndicates,” said Mr Esmond Martin, a consultant in the research.