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Thailand destroys more than 2 tons of ivory, to show intent to crack down on illegal trade

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BANGKOK — Thai authorities destroyed more than 2 tons of seized and smuggled ivory Wednesday, in the latest move by the government to avoid possible economic sanctions over a perceived failure to tackle the illicit trade.

Tusks from more than 200 dead African elephants and other items made from ivory, such as jewelry and statues, were spread across viewing tables before being crushed by a machine into small pieces that were to be incinerated later in the day.

"This event shows the international community that Thailand intends to tackle the illegal ivory trade," said Nipol Chotiban, head of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation.

To emphasize the point, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha presided over the event, loading the first tusk into the crushing machine.

Thailand's record on ivory is poor. The United Nations body that tries to tackle the illegal ivory trade, known as CITES, lists Thailand as the world's second-biggest end-user market, behind China.

PHOTO: Thai officials display seized ivory before the destruction in Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015. Thai authorities destroyed more than 2 tons of seized and smuggled ivory on Wednesday, the latest move by the government to avoid possible economic sanctions over its perceived failure to tackle the illicit trade. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
Thai officials display seized ivory before the destruction in Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015. Thai authorities destroyed more than 2 tons of seized and smuggled ivory on Wednesday, the latest move by the government to avoid possible economic sanctions over its perceived failure to tackle the illicit trade. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

The Southeast Asian country is a major transit hub and destination for smuggled tusks, which are often carved into tourist trinkets and ornaments.

Part of the problem has been a Thai law that allows ivory from its own domesticated elephants to be worked into ornaments and sold. The law has created a loophole through which ivory from African animals can be laundered. In 2013 CITES put Thailand on notice to sort out the situation or face economic sanctions.

Since then Thailand has passed new laws and made major seizures at ports and airports. But the pressure remains.

In less than a week, Thailand must submit an update of its progress to CITES.

Several wildlife and conservation groups audited the stockpile before it was destroyed and welcomed the event while noting that there is still much to do, including continuous law enforcement and the tackling of the gangs behind the trade.

"This is not over yet," said Tom Milliken, one of the world experts on the illicit trade in ivory. "This is just one event that will definitely signal to the world that the Thai government is committed but the impact on the market is really the critical element."

More than 14 tons of ivory remains in Thai stockpiles, kept as part of court cases against smugglers.

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PHOTO: A Thai official holds seized elephant tusks to be displayed before its destruction in Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015.  Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha  and a delegation of officials on Wednesday attended a ceremony to destroy two tons of confiscated ivory in Bangkok.  (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
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