Vietnamese couple nabbed in Thailand for smuggling African ivory

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Thai customs officials display pieces of elephant tusks and ivory beads confiscated from a Vietnamese couple in Bangkok on Friday. PHOTO: AFP

Thai police have arrested a Vietnamese couple for allegedly smuggling 105 kilograms of African elephant ivory from Angola to Cambodia through Thailand.

Pham Ngoc Tuan and his wife Pham Thi Kim Chi were nabbed Thursday at Suvarnabhumi Airport after customs officials detected pieces from 23 African elephant tusks in their four suitcases, Bangkok Post reported Friday.

They flew to Bangkok from Angola on Ethiopian Airlines and were set to leave for neighboring Cambodia's Siem Reap on a Bangkok Airways flight.

Yuttana Yimgarund, deputy director-general of the Customs Department, was quoted by the paper as saying that tusks had been sawed up into several 30-centimeter pieces and carved beads.

He said the contraband was worth around 16 million baht (approximately US$498,000).

According to Yuttana, this is the first time his agency has arrested Asian nationals for smuggling from Africa to Asia.

If convicted, each suspect will get up to four years in prison.

Thailand is a major hub for smuggled ivory, which is often used for making trinkets and ornaments. The ivory often ends up in China or Vietnam, where it is also used in traditional medicine.

At the 16th meeting of the 178-member Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Bangkok in March, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra committed to amending her country's laws to end the ivory trade in her country and protect Thai and African elephants.

The statement came about two months after the WWF launched a global petition demanding she ban all ivory trade in the country to curb the illegal poaching of African elephants.

Thai regulations prohibit the sale of ivory from African elephants within the country but allows domestic elephant ivory to be sold domestically, a loophole that's let African ivory to be laundered through Thai shops, the WWF said in a statement in January.

Nearly 30,000 African elephants were poached last year, the largest number in 20 years, according to the WWF. 

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