Elephants under threat as illegal ivory price soars in Viet Nam

16 February 2009 | International news release

Indochina’s few surviving elephants are under increasing threat from booming illegal ivory prices in Viet Nam, according to a new market analysis released today by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network and joint programme between IUCN and WWF.

An assessment of the illegal ivory trade in Viet Nam said Vietnamese illegal ivory prices could be the highest in the world, with reports of tusks selling for up to USD1500/kg and small, cut pieces selling for up to USD1863/kg.

Most of the raw ivory was said to originate from the Lao Peoples’ Democratic Republic, with small amounts from Viet Nam and Cambodia.

“This is a worrying trend that indicates even more pressure is being put on already fragile Asian Elephant populations,” said Azrina Abdullah. Director of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia.

According to IUCN figures, no more than 1,000 elephants are believed to survive in Lao PDR, while in Viet Nam, fewer than 150 are believed to exist. In December 2008, TRAFFIC released a report that found evidence of widespread smuggling of live Asian Elephants and their ivory from Myanmar.

Mammoth ivory from Russia was also used in small quantities, but no African raw ivory was found, although it was still being illegally imported into Viet Nam up to at least 2004.

Trade in ivory was outlawed in Viet Nam in 1992, but a major loophole in the legislation exists because shops can still sell ivory in stock dating from the prohibition. This allows some shop owners to restock illegally with recently-made carved ivory.

In 2008, TRAFFIC surveyed 669 retail outlets across Viet Nam and found 73 (11%) selling a total of 2,444 ivory items. Whilst the scale of the ivory market was smaller than in previous surveys, there were signs of increasing demand and overall numbers of craftsmen had increased since 2001. Ho Chi Minh City had the most retail outlets (49) and ivory items (1,776), but Ha Noi, with only 10 outlets, had the highest number of craftsmen.

“Although fewer ivory items were seen in 2008 than in 2001, worked ivory is increasingly being sold directly to buyers through middlemen or on the Internet, bypassing retail outlets,” said Abdullah. “Continued demand for illegal ivory is driving the prices so high."

Recent seizures in and outside Viet Nam also suggest that most raw ivory is being supplied to China.

The main buyers of ivory were from China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan) and Thailand, local Vietnamese, American-Vietnamese and Europeans, in that order.

“This insidious illegal trade is further threatening the highly endangered elephants of Asia and must be stopped,” said Dr. Susan Lieberman, Director of the Species Programme for WWF-International.

The report recommends that Viet Nam should comply with its obligations under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), particularly regarding the reporting of ivory seizures, that national regulations and their enforcement should be tightened and offenders prosecuted, and that ivory for sale in retail outlets should be confiscated by the government and destroyed.

The report also recommends better training for wildlife law enforcement officers and continued participation in the ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN) and similar initiatives that aim to control the illicit trafficking of ivory and other wildlife products in the region.

The investigation into ivory trade in Viet Nam was supported by WWF-Netherlands, and the publication of the report, An assessment of the illegal ivory trade in Viet Nam (PDF, 500 KB), was supported by the Rufford Maurice Laing Foundation.

For further information:

  • Elizabeth John, Senior Communications Officer, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, Tel: (603) 7880 3940, E-mail: jlizzjohn@yahoo.com  
  • Richard Thomas, Global Communications Co-ordinator, TRAFFIC International, Tel: +44 1223 279068, Email: richard.thomas@traffic.org