BANGKOK (AP) -- An international conservation group on Tuesday urged Thailand to ban all ivory trading, warning that rising demand for tusks is fueling an unprecedented slaughter of elephants in Africa.
The World Wildlife Fund said "massive quantities" of African ivory are being imported illegally into Thailand, where they are carved into Buddhist statues, bangles and jewelry that are then sold to tourists or smuggled elsewhere. Although it is against the law to sell African tusks in Thailand, ivory from domesticated elephants can be traded legally.
"Many foreign tourists would be horrified to learn that ivory trinkets on display next to silks in Thai shops may come from elephants massacred in Africa," said Elisabeth McLellan, manager of WWF's Global Species Program. "It is illegal to bring ivory back home and it should no longer be on sale in Thailand."
The U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, banned all international ivory trade in 1989. But Thai traders and smugglers have thrived because the ban never addressed the domestic markets, and without DNA testing, it is difficult to tell where ivory originated.
Criminal networks have exploited that loophole to flood Thai shops with "blood ivory from Africa," the World Wildlife Fund said.
"The only way to prevent Thailand from contributing to elephant poaching is to ban all ivory sales," said Janpai Ongsiriwittaya, campaign leader for WWF in Thailand. "Today the biggest victims are African elephants, but Thailand's elephants could be next."
Africa is in the midst of a crisis that saw tens of thousands of elephants slaughtered last year alone. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the international trade in ivory has reached its "highest ever recorded rate."
Poaching is up because of increasing demand from Asia — particularly from China. But poor African villagers also have much to gain; they can collect vast sums relative to their normal earning power for killing an elephant and taking its tusks.
On Tuesday, the group launched a global petition drive urging Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to ban the trade to curb illegal killings on the African continent.
Thai authorities said Tuesday that the government did not plan to impose a ban at present, adding that Thailand has established some measures that could help tackle the problem.
"It is not doable to ban all ivory trading at the moment," said Theerapat Prayurasiddhi, deputy director-general of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation. "This is because in the case of domesticated elephants, it's within the owner's rights to do what he wishes with the remains of an elephant after its death. Therefore, we cannot prohibit them from selling the tusks."
He said Thailand has tackled the illegal ivory trade through the registration of shops and businesses and detailed records of sales.
"We are also urging traders not to sell ivory to foreign buyers, who will likely bring it out of the country and therefore violate the CITES agreement," Theerapat said.
In March, representatives from governments worldwide are expected to attend a CITES meeting in Bangkok to discuss wildlife issues, including rampant elephant poaching.