"Globally, illegal ivory trade activity has more than doubled since 2007, and is now over three times larger than it was in 1998," said a report issued in Bangkok at a meeting of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
CITES has put three African and five Asian nations on notice that they have failed to adequately crack down on the ivory trade, and that by next week they must come up with a detailed and credible plan of action for curbing the trade across and within their borders. They must also meet those targets or face trade sanctions next year.
The nations threatened with sanctions are Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and China. Sanctions would keep those nations from trading even in legal wildlife products by barring other CITES member nations from buying from them.
A CITES-led project that monitors about 40 percent of Africa's elephant population estimated that 17,000 elephants were illegally killed in 2011, and the numbers are probably the same or greater for last year, said the report, produced by CITES, the U.N. Environment Program, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network, better known as TRAFFIC.
The report said the increased poaching and loss of habitat threaten the survival of elephant populations in Central Africa and undermine previously more secure populations in West, Southern and East Africa.
Curbing the ivory trade is a major topic for the CITES meeting, attended by about 2,000 delegates representing 178 governments, businesses, non-governmental organizations and groups speaking for indigenous peoples.
The report, "Elephants in the Dust — The African Elephant Crisis," said criminal networks are increasingly active and entrenched in the trafficking of ivory between Africa and Asia. "Training of enforcement officers in the use of tracking, intelligence networks and innovative techniques, such as forensic analysis, is urgently needed," it said.
Officials from the conservation groups said CITES is also putting pressure on governments of nations found to be key links in the chain of the illegal ivory trade.
Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC's ivory expert, said he hopes the current CITES meeting will hold accountable those countries that are "serious offenders." He said it was very evident that "unregulated domestic ivory markets continue to fester in many places."
"Where there is not action to address this issue I am hopeful that the CITES parties will move forward with sanctions that would suspend trade in wildlife with those countries," Milliken told reporters.
Thailand is one of the countries that could be badly hurt by sanctions. It conducts a profitable legal trade in several wildlife items, especially orchids and farmed crocodile products. In addressing the opening of the CITES conference, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra declared the country was committed to stamping out the trade, but spoke in vague terms.
"We were warned about the sanctions but we already reported back to them and presented our plans," Theerapat Prayurasiddhi, deputy director-general of Thailand's Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, told The Associated Press. "They said the plans were decent but they wanted us to set the timeframe. Now we're fixing it and will get back to them by the end of the conference."
He said he was confident Thailand would not be sanctioned.
"I have to say that all countries must help to solve the problem," Theerapat said. "I insist that Thailand is merely a transit country. More effort is needed at the countries of origin and the end countries. We have to help each other to protect the elephant population. It's the basic rule of supply and demand."