Global conservationists converged on Bangkok Sunday for the start of endangered species talks, as host Thailand was forced onto the defensive over the rampant smuggling of ivory through its territory.
The plight of elephants and rhinos -- threatened by poaching networks driven by insatiable demand for tusks and horn from Asian nations -- are set to dominate the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which lasts until March 14.
Thailand, seen as a hub for traffickers of all endangered species, is facing particular pressure over its ivory market.
Activists say criminals exploit a legal trade in Asian elephant tusks to sell illicit stocks of African ivory and conservation groups WWF and TRAFFIC have called on the Thai government to respond by outlawing the entire ivory trade.
"After years of failing to end this unfettered trade, Thailand should grab the spotlight and shut down these markets that are fuelling poaching of elephants in Africa," said Carlos Drews, director of WWF's global species programme.
In opening remarks to the conference, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said her country was working closely with foreign governments to curb the illicit trade and had tightened scrutiny of its ivory products.
"Elephants are very important for Thai culture. I must stress that no one cares more about the elephant than the Thai people," she said.
"Unfortunately, many have used Thailand as a transit country for the illegal international ivory trade," she added, stating her faith that "Thailand will be a strong ally" in the fight against the illicit business.
Since coming into force in 1975, CITES has placed some 35,000 species of animal and plants under its protection, controlling and monitoring their international trade.
The 178 countries who have signed up to the convention -- and must undertake measures to implement its decisions at home -- will also consider growing calls for the greater regulation of the shark fin trade.
Similar proposals to protect a number of shark species -- whose fins are prized in Asia -- have previously failed in the face of opposition from a group of Asian countries concerned about their fishing industries.
Humans kill about 100 million sharks each year, mostly for their fins, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and conservationists are warning that dozens of species are under threat.
"We are now the predators. Humans have mounted an unrelenting assault on sharks, and their numbers are crashing throughout the world's oceans," Elizabeth Wilson, manager of global shark conservation at Pew Charitable Trusts.
CITES, which on Sunday celebrates 40 years since its inception in 1973, is also looking to strengthen protection for multiple plant species, including Madagascar ebony and rosewood, from a host of countries.