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Asian elephants under threat as illegal ivory prices soar in Vietnam

Southeast Asia’s few surviving elephants are under increasing threat from booming illegal ivory prices in Vietnam, according to a new market analysis released by TRAFFIC – the world’s largest wildlife trade monitoring network, and a joint program of IUCN and WWF.  

The survey reports that Vietnamese illegal ivory prices could be the highest in the world, with tusks selling for up to $1,500 per kilogram (1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds) and small, cut pieces selling for up to $1,863 per kilogram.

Did You Know?

Vietnam’s law allows stores to sell ivory legally in stock before the 1992 prohibition on the possession and dealing in raw and worked ivory. Some shopowners restock illegally with recently-made worked ivory that they claim was from pre-1992 stock. Download the report.

There is already solid evidence that Asian elephants are in trouble across the region. IUCN data reports that no more than 1,000 elephants are estimated in Laos – and fewer than 150 are believed to exist in Vietnam.

“With unbelievably high prices like these and a loophole in Vietnam through which to sell the ivory, there is a major incentive to poach highly endangered Asian elephants.  This could turn back the clock on decades of Asian elephant conservation,” said Crawford Allan, TRAFFIC North America’s regional director.

Illegal trade hotspots

For this report, TRAFFIC surveyed retail outlets across Vietnam. While the scale of the ivory market was smaller than in previous surveys, there were signs of rising demand and the numbers of craftsmen had increased since 2001. Ho Chi Minh City had the most retail outlets and ivory items, but Ha Noi had the highest number of craftsmen. Most of the raw ivory was said to originate from Laos, with small amounts from Vietnam and Cambodia.

One alarming finding is that although fewer ivory items were seen in 2008 than in 2001, worked ivory is increasingly bypassing retail outlets and being sold directly to buyers through middlemen or the Internet. This makes it even more difficult to track goods and prosecute offenders.  Because there is so much illegal ivory from Asia for sale – claimed to be from old legal stocks – eBay and other internet auction houses have banned ivory sales on their sites.

Blackmarket supply chain

Recent seizures in and outside of Vietnam also suggest that most raw ivory is being supplied to China. The main buyers of ivory were from China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan) Thailand, local Vietnamese, American-Vietnamese and Europeans, in that order.  Investigations by TRAFFIC have also shown that ivory carvings on internet auction sites were originating in China and were being sold as antiques to buyers in the U.S.

“Vietnam can be a leader in the region by cracking down on illegal ivory trade within its borders. Effective law enforcement and sustainable natural resource use are building-blocks of smart growth – which is a high priority for Vietnam and other countries of the Greater Mekong region,” says Dekila Chungyalpa, managing director of WWF’s Mekong program. 

WWF’s recommendations

The report recommends that Vietnam comply with its obligations under CITES – the world’s largest international wildlife conservation treaty – particularly regarding the reporting of ivory seizures. WWF also calls for the enforcement or tightening of national regulations and the prosecution of offenders. Any illegal ivory for sale in retail outlets should be confiscated by the government and destroyed.

The report also recommends better training for wildlife law enforcement officers and continued participation in the ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN) and similar initiatives that aim to control the illicit trafficking of ivory and other wildlife products in the region.

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