Thailand wins guarded praise for destroying ivory stockpile

BANGKOK - Wildlife officials in Thailand destroyed more than two tonnes of confiscated ivory worth around US$3 million (S$4.2 million) on Wednesday in what one rights group called a milestone in the fight against the illegal trade.

Thailand is a top destination for African ivory smuggling in Asia and has come under increasing pressure to crack down on the trade. Animal rights campaigners have long accused successive governments of turning a blind eye to the problem.

The government in recent months has rolled out public awareness campaigns aimed at stopping ivory from being smuggled in and out of the country.

In January, new legislation was passed to control the possession and trade of ivory and in April, customs officials seized four tonnes of ivory worth US$6 million.

At a ceremony on Wednesday presided over by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, wildlife department officials pulverized the 1.2 million tonnes to prepare the haul for incineration.

Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the ivory trade was banned in 1989 but that has not stopped criminals from scrambling to meet burgeoning demand, particularly from China and Vietnam.

Steven Galster, executive director of Freeland, an anti-trafficking NGO, said the destruction showed Thailand was getting serious. "Today's act shows that the Thai government is taking wildlife crime more seriously, which is very important since Thailand has served as one of the world's largest transit points for global wildlife trafficking," he said.

Sallie Yang, senior programme officer at Freeland, said Wednesday's destruction was a "milestone" but more needed to be done including catching perpetrators.

Over 20,000 African elephants were killed for ivory in 2013, a CITES monitoring program showed, leaving a population believed to be around 50,000.