BANGKOK (AP) -- You can buy it freely in urban markets and rural stalls set up at elephant shows in Thailand every day: ivory, carved into everything from intricate statuettes of the pachyderm-headed Hindu deity Ganesh that go for more than $1,000 a piece to tiny tusk pendants worth less than $10.
But the thriving trade here, conservationists say, is helping fuel the unprecedented slaughter of elephants thousands of miles away in Africa, where the largest land mammals on earth are facing their worst poaching epidemic in decades. It's a crisis so grave experts now believe more are being killed than are being born.
How to slow the slaughter and curb the trade in "blood ivory" will be among the most critical issues up for debate at the 177-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, that gets under way Sunday in Bangkok. And Thailand, which is hosting the meeting, will be under particular pressure to take action.
That's because this Southeast Asian country is notorious not only as a major hub for illegally trafficked wildlife; it's also where much of the ivory smuggled out of Africa ends up -- a destination second worldwide only to China, according to the wildlife monitoring network, TRAFFIC.
"Instead of being part of the problem, the Thai government can be part of the solution by banning ivory sales" altogether within its borders, said Janpai Ongsiriwittaya of the World Wildlife Fund.
Last week, the conservation group presented a global petition with more than half a million signatures to Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, calling on her government to do just that. The trade is currently legal here as long as it involves tusks that came from native herds that have been domesticated.
Yingluck responded by saying she recognized the importance of elephant conservation and would take the plea into consideration. Thai wildlife officials have said previously that an all-out ban on ivory is not possible because those Thais who legitimately own domesticated animals should also have the right to buy and sell tusks locally.
The problem, though, is that once ivory enters Thai markets -- legally or not -- it's tough to figure out where it came from. Nevertheless, "most of the supply we see in Thai markets is illegally smuggled in from Africa," Janpai said.
And "once tourists buy it, sellers claim it's legal, and nobody can prove otherwise," she said. "The more Thailand keeps allowing these legal loopholes to be exploited, the more we'll see smuggled African ivory laundered thru Thailand, and the more African elephants will be killed because of it."
Thailand itself is home to only about 6,500 elephants, of which 2,500 are wild and off-limits. Of the remaining 4,000, only 1,500 are males that produce tusks, and many grow only one in their lifetimes. By contrast, there are an estimated 5,000 ivory traders doing business in the country, far more than the minute local supply should be able to support, Janpai said.
Dealing with the elephant crisis is just one of a plethora of biodiversity issues that will be discussed at CITES over the next two weeks. Around 70 proposals are on the table, most of which will decide whether member nations increase or lower the level of protection on various species. They include polar bears, rays and sharks that are heavily fished for shark fin soup. There are proposals, too, to regulate 200 commercially valuable timber species, and ban their trade unless it can be shown they were harvested legally and sustainably.
Prior to the establishment of CITES in 1973, there was no international regulation of the world wildlife trade.
One of the convention's success stories since then has been the African rhino, which numbered just 2,000 four decades ago. The population swelled to 25,000, but over the last five years poaching has skyrocketed again. Last year, 668 rhinos were killed in South Africa alone. As with the elephant crisis, the culprit is largely demand from Asia, where their horns are highly desired because they are believed to have medicinal properties.
"You don't have to be a great mathematician to realize that that population is going to start to go into decline," said CITES Director-General John Scanlon. "Within 20 years, you might wipe this species out. So we have to act hard, act fast, act now" to stop it.
Scanlon said the illegal wildlife trade is worth up to $20 billion per year globally. And to control it, the international community has to be willing to "deploy the sorts of techniques that are being deployed with respect to narcotics," he said.