GENEVA - Thailand faces an international wildlife trade ban unless it reins in its ivory sector, which is a magnet for traffickers, global regulator CITES said on Friday.
"There have been years without any real action on the ground when it comes to controlling the illegal ivory market," said Oeystein Stoerkersen, chairman of CITES's governing body.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora has set Thailand an August 2015 deadline to fall into line or risk wide-ranging sanctions.
Bangkok is under additional pressure to report back by January on steps to bolster recent laws on registering ivory importers, traders and legal stockpiles, that CITES claims are insufficient.
"Without that, Thailand will face a ban, and a suspension of all trade no matter what commodity it is, of the 35,000 species listed with CITES," he told reporters.
A ban would prevent the country trading anything appearing on that list with another country, including orchids and exotic wood, which are significant export products for Thailand.
"I think that is a strong signal," said Stoerkersen, adding that Thai diplomats at the talks had acknowledged that their country needed to do more.
But environmental campaigner WWF said the body should have hit Thailand harder, given that Bangkok pledged last year to smash the illegal trade but the quantities of ivory on sale rose sharply.
"A suspension of trade in all CITES goods from Thailand would have been justified," said WWF analyst Colman O'Criodain.
Current Thai law allows ivory from domesticated Thai elephants to be sold, making it simple to launder poached African ivory, WWF said.
"Thailand's market is fuelling the illegal assault on African elephants," said O'Criodain.
The decision on Thailand came as delegates wrapped up a week-long CITES conference on trade in endangered species.
Earlier this week, CITES chief John Scanlon told AFP that elephants would be wiped out in some parts of Africa unless more countries got involved in efforts to prevent poaching and smuggling.
Over the past three years, more than 60,000 African elephants have been killed, far outstripping their birth rate.
Crime syndicates and militias in Africa have become increasingly involved in the multi-billion-dollar illicit trade, taking advantage of Asian demand for ivory to use in decorations and traditional medicines.
'Next generation will not forgive us'
Stoerkersen said Thailand had become a "sink" for African ivory, sucking in imports bought by foreigners for export to other Asian countries.
"It's more or less an unregulated market," he said.
Along with China, Thailand is part of the "Gang of Eight" countries that have faced scrutiny over the ivory trade, but it is now seen as the key offender.
Speaking at the conference in Geneva, William Kiprono, who leads Kenya's Wildlife Service, said his country is cracking down hard on poachers and illegal ivory traders.
He said that the country is currently recruiting hundreds more wildlife rangers, but said more action was also needed from consumers.
"In some places, they think that ivory just falls out of an animal just like feathers," he said.
"We need to work together. If we don't act, we are going to lose our wildlife, as Kenya, as Africa and the globe. And the next generation will not forgive us," he said.
During the conference, CITES also banned trade in the emperor scorpion from Ghana due to unsustainable harvesting, and raised concerns about the illegal trade in cheetahs and snakes, as well as illegal logging.