Wildlife traffickers appear to be smuggling elephant ivory from Africa into Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia for domestic consumption and for re-export to countries in the region, experts say.
TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, made the statement in a press release after police in the northern province of Quang Ninh seized nearly 150 kilograms of elephant ivory being illegally transported for sale in the province bordering China on March 19.
The seizure happened even as over 130 countries participated in ivory discussions at the UN-backed Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference from March 13-23 in Qatar.
At the conference, governments did not give approval for two countries Zambia and Tanzania to sell their ivory, or to down-list their elephant populations, a necessary precursor for any sale to happen.
"The decision not to allow further ivory sales at this stage is a prudent one, given the current high levels of poaching.
"However, the issue of whether sales should be allowed or not detracts from the real issue that appears to be driving the poaching of elephants in Africa and elsewhere, namely the continued existence of illegal, unregulated domestic ivory markets," said Richard Thomas, Communications Coordinator for TRAFFIC.
Tom Osborn, TRAFFIC's Program Coordinator for the Greater Mekong region, said the seizure in Vietnam indicates the possibility of a thriving ivory trade as also an increase in the level of enforcement that is uncovering more illegal activities.
He said that "for many wildlife products, Vietnam is source, consumer and transit country." For ivory it remains an important transit country, mainly to markets in China, he added.
The latest seizure included 30 elephant tusks and 15 worked ivory pieces that were being carried in a car on its way to the Vietnamese border town of Mong Cai. The persons transporting the ivory admitted it was intended for sale in China.
It highlights the ongoing illicit ivory trade that afflicts Vietnam and the Southeast Asia region at large, TRAFFIC said.
It cited the latest report on the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) - the world's largest database on ivory seizures - saying China was a main driver of the ivory trade, with Vietnam also highlighted as a country of concern.
In Vietnam, the country's elephant populations have declined to historically low numbers, with an estimated fewer than 150 individuals remaining in the wild, despite a 1992- ban on ivory trade, it said.