Laos in Southeast Asia is now the leading retailer in ivory, mostly sourced from elephants recently poached in Africa.
Laos is the hotspot for rich Chinese tourists to gamble and buy stuff they cannot get as easily at home, like jewellery and carvings from ivory, rhino horn and consume wild animal products from endangered species like tigers and bears.
When China cracked down on the ivory market recently at home, it seemed a saving grace for Africa’s elephants. But all it did was shift the retail market to neighbouring Vietnam, Thailand and Laos.
Laos, historically the poor cousin of China, is beginning to boom with Chinese investors and infrastructure and is no longer the preserve of budget backpackers. Rich Chinese tourists check into opulent addresses with cocky names like Kings Romans to shop for ivory merchandise and gamble away.
“Laos is the fastest growing ivory market in the world,” stated Dr Esmond Bradley Martin who has been monitoring the illegal trade in rhino horn and elephant ivory for the last four decades.
Between 2013 and 2016 Chinese-owned retail outfits selling ivory has increased significantly with 80 per cent of the ivory being bought by Chinese visitors from the mainland to smuggle back home. This growing retail market in Laos is the latest threat to the African elephant.
Commissioned by Save The Elephants (STE), Martin and his colleague Lucy Vigne have been researching the illegal trade that’s been wiping out the last of the world’s mega-herbivores from many areas.
In their report ‘The ivory trade of Laos: now the fastest growing in the world’, published by the STE, law enforcement is virtually non-existent, making it easy to smuggle large items of ivory — many machine-made in Vietnam and Thailand — to newly opened Chinese shops selling mainly to Chinese customers.
It seems bizarre, but items range from rosaries and Buddha figurines — sacred objects carved from elephants slaughtered for their ivory.
“It is incredible that Laos has been getting away with this, and it has been worsening for several years now,” said Vigne, showing images of Laos where the cross-border trade using the Mekong River and through far-flung mountainous ranges makes it easy to smuggle wildlife products.
The report shows that in late 2013, the wholesale price of ivory sold by traders in Laos peaked at $2,000 per kilo while in 2016, it dropped to $714, attributed to the slowdown in China’s economy.
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Out of Africa
But despite this recent decline in price for ivory, the supply out of Africa has remained consistent.
In Mozambique, Tanzania, Cameroon and Gabon, poachers see only opportunity. It matters little to them when prices in the international market drop.
At the lowest level, a three-man gang of poachers receives as little as US$150 for a kilogramme of ivory. According to the Elephant Trade Information System data, the average tusk weight of seized ivory is 5kg.
According to Iain Douglas-Hamilton, 20,000 elephants have been poached every year. Kenya cracked down on poaching and its elephant population is increasing up north where since 2015 there have been more babies born than elephants dying.
“There are really bad places where elephant numbers are going down. Selous Game Reserve had the largest known population in Africa, at 100,000, but by 2013 the population was 13,000. The situation in Mozambique is really bad; in Zimbabwe along the Zambezi Valley it is devastating; in Kruger National Reserve, which has the best protection there has been an upsurge while in Gabon which has 60 per cent of Africa’s forest elephants, the situation is dire,” Mr Douglas-Hamilton adds.
“Only a tiny percentage of Chinese is involved in this trade, something like one per cent,” says Douglas-Hamilton. But as one of the world’s most populous nation — 1.379 billion as at 2016 — the one per cent translates to a ready market of 13,790,000 people.