The tragic discovery of six slaughtered elephants in Thailand’s national parks last month has led to the revelation of a greater tragedy taking place in these protected areas. According to a conservationist, the adult elephants are deliberately being killed to capture baby elephants for a growing tourist trade.
Dutch national Edwin Wiek, founder of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand wrote an article titled Thai Elephants Are Being Killed for Tourist Dollars published in The Nation newspaper on January 24. He said that the elephant deaths reported in Kaeng Krachan and Kiu Buri parks were part of a bigger plot where baby elephants were being captured to be trained for tourist entertainment. He also added that government officials too were accomplice of this illegal operation.
Edwin said in his article that the poachers were now not just killing elephant to trade with neighboring Myanmar but were also doing so to meet the demands of the tourism industry within the country. With less than 2000 elephants left, the nation is struggling hard to keep the wild elephants safe.
According to his own investigations 2 to 3 baby elephants are poached from the wild each week. A baby elephant can fetch up to 1 million baht($30,000 U.S) at camps in Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai, Hua Hin, Pattaya, Phuket, where they are trained to perform tricks and provide rides for tourists.
He added that if foreign tourists knew how the babies were separated from their parents and how the adult elephants were killed, they would never want to be part of the fun revolving around an elephant.
After the direct accusations in his article, Wiek’s animal sanctuary in Phetchaburi province was raided on February 13 by 70 armed officials from the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department.
The sanctuary established in 2001 has some 400 animals and the officials wanted to see ownership documents for each of them. Although Wiek says he has the required documents, officials claimed that 103 smaller mammals were kept without proper documentation and would be confiscated.
The animal sanctuary was still under armed guard this week.
Wiek claims that the raid was a conspiracy following the published article on baby elephant trafficking but officials say otherwise.
“The discovery of the six dead elephants had nothing to do with the raid on Wiek’s place,” said Damrong Phidej, director-general of the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department. “There are so many of these charities and none of them have proper paperwork for the animals, so we are trying to straighten it out a bit,” he added.
Previously the department also raided The Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai founded Sangduen Chailert. Better known as Lek, she had also spoken about baby elephant trafficking in a television interview.
Her sanctuary has about 71 elephants mostly old adults that have been suffering from injuries sustained from working in Myanmar’s logging industry or Thailand’s tourism sector.
“We had the paperwork for all our elephants,” Lek said. “But I told the park officials they could take our buffalos if they wanted them.”
Elephants have been used in the timber industry for centuries in thailand and they are known more as livestock rather than wild animals. In 1988 after the kingdom banned the logging industry, most of these elephants shifted to tourism industry and today there are an estimated 3,000 domesticated elephants in Thailand.
While proper documentation is still required for an adult elephant, it is fairly easy to get hold of a baby elephant as no documents are needed till they are nine years old. These elephants are reared with foster mothers.
Wiek has asked the Thai officials to carry out DNA tests to ascertain if the elephant calves are with their biological mothers.
Although Wiek has faced lots of criticism post his article, not many deny his allegations.
“Burma has logging but no tourism, while Thailand has tourism but no logging, and the Burmese wants the Yankee dollar and the Thais have it because this is a cash economy,” said Richard Lair, author of Gone Astray, a book on Thailand’s elephant industry. “So just as water flows to the lowest level, elephants flow to money.”
Whether the trafficking is within the country or across boundaries, the real problem is the diminishing number of elephants in the forest and the brutal methods adopted to capture the young ones. It is for the country’s own future that it must adopt stricter policies to curb the issue.