BANGKOK – The 16th CITES conference in Bangkok got off to a great start with the Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra launching a major pre-emptive strike before what could have been a very difficult time for the host nation.
Thailand is one of the hubs of the world’s illegal wildlife trade, particularly ivory which is brought in from Africa and mixed with local elephant tusks, which are sold legally, meaning there is a giant loophole for the criminal underworld to launder its ill-gotten goods through.
Several countries and a host of non government organisations had the Thais in the sights of their elephant guns and were proposing sanctions be brought against the hosts for flouting the rules of the Convention by allowing the ivory trade to flourish, while tens of thousands of African elephants are slaughtered each year, despite their supposed protection under CITES.
Enter Yingluck Shinawatra, armed with her opening day address, which resulted in the lowering of the barrels aimed at her government, for now. She announced that no one loves elephants more than the Thais and her government would look to amend the laws to bring an end to the ivory trade. What a way to start a conference designed to offer protection to plants and animals.
The threats of sanctions were temporarily suspended, but the Prime Minister will have to follow through quickly and prove that she meant what she said and wasn’t simply trying to save face by avoiding a barrage of criticism of her country’s attitude towards wildlife smuggling while hosting a major international conference on that very subject.
She will face massive resistance from greedy business people and corrupt politicians who will see their dirty money disappear if the laws are changed and more importantly enforced. And why stop at ivory? What about Rhino horns coming into Thailand in huge numbers and being helped across the borders by officials who look the other way for a fee?
What about Thai Rosewood? Thailand is finally trying to get some restrictions and controls in place through CITES that will hopefully slow down the smuggling of this rapidly disappearing tree.
I was fortunate enough to be invited to go on patrol with the brave rangers from the Department of National Parks as they tried to catch illegal loggers in the act and it brought home how easy it is for the criminals to operate as the rangers operate largely on their own with little assistance from the police. While on patrol with them we became involved in a hair-raising car chase as 3 vehicles fled the national park at speed, one of which was carrying Rosewood logs. There was no help from any other government agency, including the police, and the end result was that the loggers escaped, with most of their bounty. With a little coordination and better equipment, it would have been a victory for the good guys.
I’m left to assume that some people in powerful positions don’t want trades like illegal logging to disappear because they’re making too much money out of them.
There are many people, both official and unofficial, doing some amazing work in Thailand and other countries in the region to try to stop the illegal wildlife trade and they do win sometimes.
But the sad fact is that their efforts are being countered at most turns by dangerous criminals, with big backing by unscrupulous businessmen and officials who are too greedy to see the big picture and the damage they’re causing the world.
Everyone should be excited by the Prime Minister’s announcement, but wary of the massive task she has to drag Thailand out of the murky world of smuggling. To even begin to tackle the problem there is one huge evil she has to overcome first, corruption. After all that’s what is keeping the industry alive.