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Thailand Makes Record Bust of Illegal Ivory

Thailand has intercepted a record two tons of elephant tusks that authorities say were smuggled into the country from Africa. Thailand is seeking to be removed from a blacklist of countries involved in the illegal ivory trade.

Thai customs authorities say they seized 239 elephant tusks at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport, worth an estimated $3.6 million, late Wednesday.

The officials say the haul weighed more than two tons and was the largest bust in Thailand's recent history.

The seizure followed a tip that illegal ivory from South Africa arrived on a plane from Dubai.

The ivory was labeled as telecommunication parts destined for Laos. But Tanat Suvattanametakul, director of the airport's cargo clearance customs bureau, says the cargo declaration was false. "They need to import to Thailand but they just declare the transit to Laos," said Tanat.

Thailand is a major transit point for trafficking wildlife products, much of which goes to markets in China.

Thailand is hoping to be removed from a blacklist of countries involved in the illegal trade at a March conference of parties to CITES, the convention on international trade in endangered species.

Sulma Warne is a program officer with Traffic, an organization that monitors the illegal trade in wildlife. He says the record bust should help Thailand's image, but says there are additional steps the country needs to take to crack down on smugglers.

"The fines and the punishments that are handed out tend not to be significant enough for people not to engage or re-engage in such criminal activities. So, we would certainly like to see the enforcement or the punishments ramped up," said Sulma.

Customs officials say a Thai national tried to pick up the shipment of illegal ivory and was detained. But it is not clear if any charges were made. The United Nations banned the international trade in ivory in 1989, but smuggling continues and ivory traders often disguise illegal sources as domestic stockpiles.