Smugglers take root in Laos

Thai border police say they have seized 400kg of compressed cannabis from Laos in Na Yoong district in a shipment that was suspected to have been heading for Japan.
Police Colonel Prat Soonthornpimol, border chief in Udon Thani, said the marijuana was ferried in sacks by three boats across the Mekong River from Laos. The secretive Communist state is fast becoming a smuggling hotspot.
It is also the world’s fastest growing ivory market, according to the Kenya-based group Save the Elephants.
Although China is banning all ivory trade by the end of this year, business is booming in its neighbours.
More than 500,000 Chinese tourists visited Laos in 2015, around 8 per cent of the Laotian population, marking a four-fold increase in six years. China is also the major investor in the reclusive state.
A Chinese casino resort on the Mekong River was visited by Save the Elephants’ activists, who described rampant gambling, prostitution and ivory sales, with Chinese customers accounting for more than 80 per cent of trade.
Most of the retailers did not appear to speak English or any Laotian languages, according to the researchers.
The investigation reportedly uncovered numerous shops openly selling thousands of carved tusks, ivory bangles, pendants and bracelets.
Most of the shops are run by Chinese traders and the bulk of the ivory was worked on in Vietnam before being smuggled west into Laos, the group said.
Prices in Vietnam, Myanmar and Laos are lower than in China and the illegal cross-border trade is not policed, argues the NGO.
“In the absence of effective law enforcement, the sales of ivory items to Chinese consumers will continue to rise,” said researcher Esmond Martin.
Sources reportedly said that too much ivory from Africa and Thailand had been flooding the Laotian market. At the end of 2016, the average wholesale price of raw ivory in Laos fell to US$714 per kg, compared to almost US$2,000 in 2013.
Tens of thousands of African elephants are butchered every year for their tusks.
The report’s principal author, Lucy Vigne, said Laos must tackle the growing problem.
“With a lack of strong and continuing international pressure to curtail the trade in ivory in Laos and a lack of interest by the Laotian government, there has been a significant and relatively sudden growth in the ivory trade,” Vigne said.

Impoverished Laos is vulnerable to the mighty yuan. Picture credit: Flickr