At the sixteenth Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Bangkok, Thailand, eight countries have been singled out as the main players in the illegal trade of ivory. They include both source and destination countries: Host nation Thailand – where the trade in domestically produced ivory is legal – along with Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, China, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

This “watch list”, or “gang of eight” is broken down into African countries from where elephants are poached for their ivory and countries in Asia, where demand for ivory is strong. At particular risk are African forest elephants, whose numbers have declined by 62% over the past 10 years, mostly due to the demand for ivory. This is double the amount of the previous decade. The tusks of forest elephants are valued by Asian carvers over those of savannah elephants because of their size, shape and hardness.

From a report by SAPA:

Cites estimated about 25 000 African elephants were killed in 2011 and a similar number last year, most poached to supply East Asia’s market for ivory trinkets, tusks and specialised items.

Ivory trinkets seized en route from Nigeria to Hong Kong at Heathrow airport in the UK, pic: UK Home Office

*The Elephant Advocacy League puts the death toll at 35-40,000 each year.

If the gang of eight do not come up with concrete plans in the next 12 months, there is a possibility that they will face sanctions banning all wildlife trade between them and the rest of the 178 CITES member nations.

From the Guardian:

Cites is seeking stronger powers to sanction at the Bangkok summit. It is also seeking funding to pay for anti-poaching and smuggling measures: a fund set up in August 2012 aiming to raise $100m has so far received only $640,000.

What’s driving the illegal trade in ivory is high demand in Asia along with high profits and a low risk at being caught for poachers and organized criminal gangs. I almost regret writing this as it seems like a recommendation for getting involved in this sinister business. This is why binding international agreements to combat trafficking – in a variety of ways – are so necessary.

(READ MORE: Online ivory trade threatens Africa’s elephants)

And it can work. From the inception of CITES in 1973 to 2012, African white rhinoceros numbers made a significant comeback (from 2,000 to over 19,000). However, poaching has recently shot up to unprecedented known levels.

From a piece in Time Magazine:

Last year poaching levels in Africa were at their highest since international monitors began keeping detailed records in 2002. In 2011 a record amount of illegal ivory was seized worldwide: 38.8 tons, equal to the tusks that would be found on more than 4,000 dead elephants.

New economic and social political circumstances require new and improved methods to stop the illegal trade. For instance, there was no Internet to facilitate the illegal ivory trade at the start of CITES. One such method is to ban the legal trade of endangered animal parts – and their associated loopholes – in countries like China and Thailand.

Marching elephants in Tsavo National Park, Kenya, pic: Leon Lloyd (Flickr CC)