The Laotian ivory trade: an ugly by-product of national corruption

The retail ivory market in Laos has rocketed in recent years. Corruption and weak law enforcement remain an obstacle to eradicating the destructive trade.


In the last few months of 2017, Laos became the fastest growing ivory market in the world. China banned the sale of ivory at the end of 2017. This, coupled with China’s economic slowdown changed the landscape of the ivory trade.

The Laotian retail market is picking up trade from the declining wholesale market

Raw elephant tusks leave Africa on ships destined for Vietnam. Before the ban, Vietnamese traffickers would move 90% of these onwards to China. In China, ivory was worth US$1,500 per pound, and there was a huge market for the illegal items.

Source: The Guardian

With the Chinese economy slowing, many ivory items now end up in Laos. Chinese traders used to buy ivory wholesale. Big businesses would syphon money from government loans for infrastructure and development projects. They would spend this syphoned money on illicit trade, like ivory deals. Since 2015, the Chinese government has been more reluctant to lend businesses money. This has led to a decrease in wholesale ivory sales from Vietnam and caused a surplus in ivory. This surplus ivory is ending up in the retail market in Laos.

Ivory enters Laos overland from Vietnam either in raw form or processed. Sellers then sell it as jewellery or carved tusks to the 500,000 Chinese tourists that arrive every year. Chinese customers make up 80% of the Laotian business.

Weak law enforcement means ivory trafficking can thrive

The Laos government joined the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) in 2004. All CITES members prohibit the trade of ivory from African and Asian elephant tusks.

Despite this, there has been no enthusiasm from the Laos authorities to enforce the ban. From 2004-2014, the authorities did not report any ivory seizures. There was only one in 2015. From 2010 to 2016, 11.3 tonnes of ivory seizures in other countries were destined for Laos.

Rampant corruption among government officials means wildlife traffickers operate across the country unimpeded. One Chinese-Laotian shop owner in Luang Prabang spoke about bribing the authorities. She said government officials “invite me to have dinner once a while”, adding, “I have to put money in the invitation letter and pay for the meal.”

Legislation without enforcement is pointless

The Laotian government has made efforts to address the issue. It has adopted the CITES National Action Plan. There were also reports of a small number of ivory seizures in Laotian shops at the end of 2017. However, this only led to vendors removing the products from the shopfronts. Now they show their ivory selection in back rooms. It has had little effect on the market or curbed its growth.

The fight against the ivory trade is synonymous with the fight against corruption. Until government officials on the ground stop accepting bribes to look the other way, it will remain intact.

The ivory trade is threatening the very existence of one of this planet’s most amazing beasts. The Laotian government must take ending corruption seriously. It is the only way to stop the rise of this dangerous trade.