ITV News goes undercover in Laos - a country where the illegal ivory trade thrives

Ivory jewellery displayed in a cabinet at one of the shops the ITV News team visited. Credit: ITV News

Laos is a landlocked country in southern Asia, lying between Vietnam and Thailand.

In the north it also borders Myanmar and China and in the south Cambodia.

Its geographical location has helped its growing involvement in the international ivory trade, with Thailand and China the world’s largest traders and consumers.

We travelled to the capital Vientiane where in the north-west corner of the city the Sang Jiang market has become an unofficial Chinatown openly selling ivory products.

It’s clear from the moment you arrive who the main customers are. All of the signs are in Chinese, the shop keepers spoke to us in Chinese and we were quoted prices in renminbi.

We were advised by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) who also had a team in Vientiane at the same time, that it was best to film undercover.

It’s very rare for westerners to go to this market so going in as journalists wasn’t an option.

Posing as tourists, myself, cameraman Mark Davey and our translator went into our first shop and found a display cabinet full of ivory jewellery.

I was offered several bracelets to try on but none of them would fit over my hand; she explained they are sized for the smaller wrists of Chinese women.

We asked what we should do about getting what we bought back into China and she told us it was probably best to wear the jewellery when we went through customs - perhaps hidden under a jumper.

In the next shop there we some ornaments for sale and the young man behind the counter showed us on his phone a few other carvings available from their store.

One was around a foot and a half high and would cost us £4,500.

He also advised us that the best way to get jewellery into the country was to wear it but for the larger items they would deliver them to Beijing. He spoke about this "mail order" system as if we were placing a clothes order not purchasing illegal ivory.

An image shown to the team of an ivory statue on a display cabinet also containing ivory jewellery. Credit: ITV News

Our translator also went shopping in the market on her own, being Chinese we thought the sellers might be more forthcoming with her, and they were.

She pretended she was looking for a full carved tusk and was informed they didn’t keep larger things in the market, but they could get something made for her.

During their conversation the woman kept on mentioning blood ivory. They claim it’s ivory which has been taken while the elephant is still alive and it’s blood is still pumping. This apparently makes it of higher quality. Experts tell us this claim is false and nothing more than a sales pitch.

One of the picture shown to the team shows an array of ivory laying on a floor in storage.

Again, our translator was told that it was possible to get this carved tusk delivered to Beijing, through special channels.

They said she would get her money back if it didn’t reach her.

Sending ornaments was no problem, they said, because if customs find them they just take them away but for larger things like a tusk they have to use other channels because there’s the risk of jail.

An image showing a large piece of ivory shown on a mobile phone. Credit: ITV News

In all of the shops we went into there was a degree of wariness but I also got the impression that they didn’t really see anything wrong with what they are doing. One shopkeeper told is us it’s legal to sell ivory in Laos. It’s not.

All of the material we filmed will be given to the EIA who are compiling a report for CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).

Laos has been sanctioned twice by CITES and implicated in several recent ivory seizures in Thailand but so far their have been no prosecutions or convictions.

Ivory is still being sold despite continued efforts to crack down on the illegal trade. Credit: ITV News

The EIA has also gathered evidence of ivory markets on the border with China and in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet in the north-west of the country.

CITES are due to visit Laos at the end of this month. The EIA say only increased international pressure and awareness can result in greater enforcement.

From what we saw the key lies with China. The lawless network of ivory supply will continue, as long as there’s a demand from the predominantly Chinese market.