Cambodia gets serious about its illegal ivory trade

Photo Credit: USFWS/Wikimedia Commons

The director-general of Cambodia’s Customs and Excise is cracking down on the illegal ivory trade. Armed with new partnerships, an innovative anti-smuggling program and support from other ASEAN nations, the effort might just yield results.


The director-general of the Cambodian Department of Customs and Excise, Kun Nhim directed all branch directors to intensify their efforts and crack down on ivory smuggling. In a letter, Mr Nhim reminded branch chiefs: “Importing, exporting and transporting elephant and rhino ivory and furniture made from them are illegal acts.”

Mr Nhim’s instructions come after signs that Cambodia’s illicit ivory trade is expanding. In December, Cambodian authorities made their largest ivory seizure ever recorded on Cambodian soil. They found 3.2 tonnes of elephant tusks hidden in a storage container in the capital, Phenom Peng’s port. The container had arrived from Mozambique.

Another 600 kilograms of ivory was seized in Sihanoukville in January. The Department of Customs and Excise reported that it seized more than five tonnes of ivory between 2016 and 2018.

Smugglers are using prehistoric measures to bypass China’s ban

Cambodia has emerged as an ivory smuggling hub in recent years. In 2017, China banned trade in ivory. This pushed ivory smuggling into countries on the Chinese border, where smugglers could still reach their Chinese buyers but remained outside the reach of the Chinese authorities.

As a result, an illicit ivory trade has emerged in Laos and Cambodia. Weak law enforcement and high levels of government corruption allow smugglers to operate with relative impunity. Since 2017, the volume of Cambodian stores selling ivory has tripled. An estimated 78% of their customers are Chinese.

Among the ivory trinkets seized in recent months was an artefact made out of woolly mammoth tusks. The prehistoric mammal has been extinct for more than 10,000 years. With climate change causing the permafrost in the Siberia to shrink, these prehistoric tusks are increasingly being traded in illicit ivory markets.

Woolley mammoths are not listed as a protected species. Therefore, there is no penalty for buying and selling mammoth tusks.

The find was part of an innovative anti-smuggling project

Scientists at Edinburgh Zoo made the startling mammoth discovery when they tested an ivory trinket confiscated in Cambodia. The scientists are at the heart of modern anti-smuggling techniques. By carrying out DNA tests on the confiscated ivory, they are hoping to track smuggling routes out of Africa and into Southeast Asia.

The genetic testing can reveal where the elephant species originated, establishing the region it was poached it. It can also find other trinkets that may have been made out of the same elephant’s tusks. In doing so, they can help governments channel resources to combat poaching on the African continent. They can also map smuggling routes.

Sources: Southeast Asia GlobeAT

Cambodia is at the forefront of the fight against ivory smuggling in Southeast Asia

The Royal Zoological Society in Scotland, whose scientists were working at Edinburgh zoo, and Fauna & Flora International (FFI) are working to establish a forensic conservation genetics laboratory at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. This lab will help regional law enforcement officials gather evidence and track ivory supply routes.

Mr Nhim’s letter is the latest indication that the Cambodian government is dedicated to ending ivory sales. Cambodia established a National Ivory Action Plan (Niap) under the instruction of the Cites Secretariat in 2014.

In 2018, the country ratified legislation including African elephants on a list of protected species. It introduced strict penalties for anyone caught with ivory from African elephants, including a five-year maximum prison sentence.

The latest Niap has also set the goal of reducing the number of vendors selling ivory in the country by 50% from 2017 figures.

Cambodia also has the support of other ASEAN nations. The 10 ASEAN member states issued a statement at the end of March pledging improved regional coordination to implement the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals. One of these goals is to “take urgent actions to end poaching and trafficking of protected species of flora and fauna and address both demand and supply of illegal wildlife products.”

With the Cambodian Department of Customs and Excise on a war footing and a new forensic genetics laboratory on the horizon, the Cambodian government appears committed to cracking down on ivory sales. Provided it can manage its partnerships with conservation groups and cooperate with regional and global players, there is no reason why it can’t make headway and end Cambodia’s involvement in the assault on one of our planet’s gentlest of giants.