WASHINGTON, DC, December 10, 2008 -- A border guard in Myanmar takes bribes to smuggle elephants into Thailand so he can travel to World Cup soccer matches, according to an undercover investigation by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The report found that so many live elephants have been smuggled to support “elephant trekking” tourism in Thailand that some parts of the Myanmar appear to have lost their elephant populations.
The border official in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, openly shared details with TRAFFIC investigators on his role in moving live elephants across the border to Thailand. He charged between $50–200 per elephant and recorded in his logbook that 240 elephants were taken across the border to Thailand over an 18-month period. He acknowledged this activity was illegal, but said that he was saving money to fly to Germany to watch the 2006 World Cup soccer tournament. He is now saving for his next big vacation, the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
The account is just one example of the flourishing trade that is decimating already endangered elephant populations in Asia. The report, Elephant and Ivory Trade in Myanmar, details how investigators found 9,000 pieces of ivory and 16 whole tusks for sale -- representing the ivory of about 116 male Asian elephants -- in 17 markets surveyed in Thailand and China between January and March 2006.
The research found evidence of corruption allowing the illicit smuggling of ivory and elephants to take place. Females and juvenile elephants are particularly targeted to supply the demand from the tourism industry in Thailand, where they are put to work in elephant trekking centers.
“Traders stated that some of the ivory was destined for export to the United States and unsuspecting US tourists are fueling the demand for live elephants used in trekking operations” said Crawford Allan, director of TRAFFIC North America. “Myanmar and Thailand seem a long way away but even here in the United States we are having an impact. It is important not to buy elephant ivory and be very careful before signing up for tourist excursions that use elephants in Thailand.”
TRAFFIC staff posing as potential buyers found retailers openly displayed ivory and other elephant parts and rarely hesitated in disclosing illegal activities and smuggling techniques.
In Mong La, adjacent to China’s Yunnan Province, a state tourist guide helped with locating places where wildlife was sold, and in Three Pagodas Pass, along the Thai-Myanmar border, an individual working for the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation assisted in locating ivory and other wildlife products.
According to ivory carvers and dealers in Myanmar, Asian ivory is perceived as being far superior to African ivory. Carvers in Mandalay stated to TRAFFIC researchers that ivory from Myanmar’s elephants was of a higher quality than that from India. The ivory was generally intended to be sold to foreigners, especially individuals from China, Thailand and Japan. Two dealers also said some carved ivory is exported to the U.S., Italy and France.
TRAFFIC and WWF are concerned that the rate of the ivory trade and capture of live elephants is seriously impacting wild populations.
“Anecdotal reports of elephant disappearances, together with the large volume of ivory and elephant parts consistently observed for sale at markets over a period of several years suggests that trade poses a significant threat to the survival of Asian elephants in Myanmar,” said co-author Vincent Nijman of Oxford Brookes University.
The smuggling of live elephants, ivory and other elephant parts out of Myanmar and into neighboring China and Thailand occurs in violation of national and international laws, including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). No cross-border trade of live elephants has been reported to CITES by either Myanmar or Thailand. Both Thailand and Myanmar are also members of the ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network, a regional network established to promote cross-border collaboration to tackle illegal wildlife trade.
“Clearly, illegal killing and capture of elephants for trade continues to be a major cause for the decline of Myanmar’s wild Asian elephant populations,” said Sybille Klenzendorf, director of WWF’s Species Conservation Program. “The country can still remain a major stronghold for this endangered species if it chooses to strengthen enforcement and take action together with Thailand and China to crack down on this insidious trade.”