SINGAPORE, Feb 16 (Reuters) - Rising prices and strong demand for illegal ivory threaten the survival of Indochina's remaining elephants, according to a study by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.
In the report, released on Monday, the group said they had surveyed 669 shops in Vietnam and found 11 percent selling nearly 2,500 ivory items.
Much of the raw ivory was said to have originated from neighbouring Laos, with the remainder from Vietnam and Cambodia. No raw African ivory was found.
"This is a worrying trend that indicates even more pressure is being put on already fragile Asian elephant populations," Azrina Abdullah, director of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, said in a statement.
According to figures from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, there are at most 1,000 elephants in Laos and about 150 in Vietnam.
An earlier TRAFFIC report found evidence of widespread smuggling of live Asian elephants and their ivory from Myanmar.
The latest TRAFFIC study found that Vietnamese illegal ivory prices could be the highest in the world, with reports of tusks selling for up to US$1,500 per kilogram and small, cut pieces selling for up to $1,863 a kg.
"Continued demand for illegal ivory is driving the prices so high," Abdullah said.
The report said the main buyers were from China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan), Thailand, local Vietnamese, American-Vietnamese and Europeans.
"Trade in ivory was outlawed in Vietnam in 1992, but a major loophole in the legislation exists because shops can still sell ivory in stock dating from the prohibition," said TRAFFIC in the statement.
"This allows some shop owners to restock illegally with recently made carved ivory," it said.
The report said there were fewer ivory items seen in shops in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi in 2008 than in 2001 during a similar survey. But it said worked ivory was increasingly being sold directly to buyers through middlemen or on the Internet, bypassing retail outlets.
It said Vietnam acceded to the U.N. convention that governs trade in endangered species and called on the government to close any loopholes that allowed the illegal ivory trade to flourish. (Reporting by David Fogarty; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)
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