BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand will end its domestic ivory trade, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra announced on Sunday, promising legislation that could help the country avoid international trade sanctions after criticism by environmental groups.
The announcement of legislation to end the ivory trade came at the opening ceremony of a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) conference in Bangkok.
"This will help protect all forms of elephants including Thailand's wild and domestic elephants and those from Africa," Yingluck said in a statement.
The CITES conference runs until March 14.
Environmental groups such as World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and TRAFFIC, which monitors the wildlife trade, have been calling for CITES to sanction Thailand, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo for their part in the illegal ivory trade.
Thailand is accused by conservation groups of fuelling the already rampant slaughter of African elephants and trade in their ivory through lax enforcement and regulation of its legal domestic market, which the country has never publicly committed to curbing before.
The largely unregulated market is ideal for laundering illegal African ivory into its system before being sold on, environmental groups say.
Groups said it was not clear how Thailand would go about ending its domestic trade, nor how long it would take.
"Prime Minister Shinawatra now needs to provide a timeline for this ban and ensure that it takes place as a matter of urgency, because the slaughter of elephants continues," said Carlos Drews, head of WWF's delegation to CITES.
Thailand is the largest illegal ivory market in the world behind China with much of the ivory being bought by foreign tourists, the WWF says.
(Reporting by Paul Carsten; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Robert Birsel)