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BANGKOK (Reuters) - Ivory is easy to find on the stalls of Chatuchak Market and River City mall in Bangkok. On display at just one shop are hundreds of kilograms of carved elephant tusk, unthinkable in most capitals but freely and legitimately for sale in Thailand.
As many as 30,000 elephants were slaughtered globally last year, environmental groups say, and populations are rapidly dwindling, with poachers undeterred by a ban on the international ivory trade in existence since 1989.
Thailand allows its nationals to trade in ivory from elephants that have died of natural causes inside its borders. But animal activists say the system is abused and ivory from Africa and elsewhere is "laundered" through the country.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) holds a conference in Bangkok from March 3 to 14 and - to the embarrassment of the hosts - environmental groups such as World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and TRAFFIC plan to table a motion calling for sanctions against Thailand.
"One of the reasons Thailand is being hit so hard in the CITES conference is, if you look at the numbers of domestic elephants and the numbers of Thailand's ivory carvers, it doesn't add up," said William Schaedla, director of Southeast Asia for TRAFFIC, an NGO for monitoring wildlife trade.
TRAFFIC estimates the country's elephant population and the natural death rate would provide only 8.4 kg (18.5 pounds) of ivory per registered carver a year.
But poor enforcement and regulation mean Thai merchants can lay their hands on much larger quantities. After the 1989 ban, countries were supposed to inventory their pre-existing stockpiles so CITES could keep tabs on them. Thailand never did, animal rights groups say.
"There's an undisclosed amount of ivory in the country, so essentially a bottomless pit to launder through," said Schaedla.
Thai ivory is supposed to be certified, but according to Schaedla this involves an easily forged slip of paper that the government doesn't bother to track, meaning African ivory can easily enter the market.
These failures mean Thailand now faces sanctions that, at their strongest, would ban its participation in international trade in the most endangered CITES-listed species, including reptile skins and rare orchids in which it has thriving markets.
Only Thai nationals should be able to buy ivory inside the country but buyers from Europe, the Americas and China are more common. Crackdowns are rare, and mostly occur during the run-up to CITES conferences, NGOs said.
Efforts have been made to clean up the laws governing elephants, but lobbying from ivory carvers and elephant owners derailed the process.
"The resolution of this issue is about political will, and Thailand has repeatedly kicked the can down the road," said Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC's director for South and East Africa.
Some believe sanctions aren't enough, and that the only way to save Africa's elephants is to ban all ivory markets, including those in Thailand and China, the world's largest.
"Our position is any legal market provides a parallel illegal market," said Mary Rice of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a London-based NGO.
The EIA estimates over 90 percent of ivory on sale in China is illegally sourced.
"We must target the demand side and ensure markets in China and Thailand for ivory are banned. Ivory should be illegal without exception," Shelley Waterland of the Born Free Foundation told a news conference in Bangkok on Thursday.
Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said on Wednesday Thailand would "consider" a ban on the domestic ivory trade, but some officials apparently see no need.
"The Thai government has a system to control the ivory trade from domestic animals already," said Theeraphat Prayurasith, deputy director of Thailand's Department of National Park, Wildlife and Plant Protection.
"We do not use African ivory in this country, and the quantities are not too large to be from domestic ivory. It is the right of Thai people to use domestic elephants," he said.
Activists will argue at the CITES conference that this system is not working, and the Thai ivory trade is a big factor behind dwindling African elephant populations.
"No one is going to hammer them and hit them with sanctions if they do something. But there's an appearance of subterfuge and stalling," said Schaedla. (Additional reporting by Pairat Temphairojana; Editing by Alan Raybould and Elaine Lies)