Thailand, which is set to host a UN summit on endangered species next month, along with several other countries should face sanctions for their role in the swelling illegal ivory trade, wildlife conservationists said Thursday.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC called in a statement on the 177 governments set to attend the Bangkok meeting "to begin a formal procedure that would lead to strict trade restrictions against the worst offenders in the illicit ivory trade."
Africa has seen a sharp rise in the illegal trade in wildlife products like ivory and rhino horn, with up to 30,000 African elephants poached for their ivory last year and a record 668 South African rhinos killed for their horns, the organisations said.
They pointed to Thailand, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo as the worst culprits in the illicit ivory trade, while Vietnam was the main market and Mozambique was the "smuggling hub" for rhino horn.
UN wildlife trade regulator CITES, which is organising the Bangkok meeting, should prepare to impose sanctions if these countries don't do more to rectify the situation, they insisted.
"With the demand for ivory driving a widespread poaching crisis, CITES member countries must demand compliance with international law," said Steven Broad, the executive director of TRAFFIC, in the statement.
The organisations stressed that CITES conference host Thailand is one of the world's largest unregulated ivory markets, since it allows the sale of ivory from domestic elephants and thereby makes it easy for criminals to launder illegal African ivory in the country.
"Thailand can easily fix this situation by banning all ivory sales in the country," Carlos Drews, who heads WWF's Global Species Programme, said in the statement.
He pointed out that WWF was preparing a petition, which had already garnered more than 420,000 signatures, that it planned to hand to Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra at the CITES conference calling for an immediate ban on the ivory trade.
WWF and TRAFFIC also said CITES should consider imposing sanctions on China if it did not by next year rectify "serious issues with enforcement of its legal domestic ivory markets."
The illegal ivory trade is mostly fuelled by demand in Asia and the Middle East, where elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns are used to make ornaments and in traditional medicine.