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Keeping Thailand’s Elephants Wild

by Brianna Rowe

Thailand’s northern provinces are adorned with elaborately carved elephant woodwork, elephant-print textiles and temples gated by elephant idols. Even the national beer, Chang, is named after the country’s most revered animal. Although elephant statues line the highways linking national parks, it might soon be impossible to find an elephant in Thailand’s wilderness.

Asian elephant numbers are estimated between 40,000-50,000 and are found throughout India, Sri Lanka, China and most of Southeast Asia. For decades, both the wild and captive elephant populations have been threatened. Wild elephant populations face loss of habitat through deforestation and urbanization, human-wildlife conflict, and a loss of genetic diversity from forest fragmentation. Captive elephants that have traditionally been used for logging, transportation and warfare over the past 4,000 years are facing unemployment and neglect.

Preventing the threats to wild elephant populations are incredibly complex. The issues facing wild elephants can be boiled down to globalization and human population growth. Policy measures, however, can prevent wild elephants from becoming captive elephants for the tourism industry.

Captive elephants have been part of Thai culture for thousands of years. Today’s growing elephant tourism has led to cases of mistreatment. Traditionally, an elephant trainer, called a mahout, receives a young captive elephant and grows up training the elephant for work in the jungle. John Roberts, Director of Elephants at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, explains that the generations of mahout culture and elephant training traditions have disintegrated as elephants have found their way into tourism. Many of the mahouts at Roberts’ Foundation were earning a living by begging on crowded streets or tourist-filled beaches.

Elephant neglect is a common problem because modern mahouts have lost the hereditary knowledge passed down from generations. They push their elephants into long working hours in unnatural environments without the proper nutrition. There are organizations, like Roberts’, that are working to provide appropriate conditions for mahouts and their elephants to work in the tourism industry. In addition to providing appropriate conditions for working elephants, Thailand’s policies must prevent modern mahouts from poaching wild elephants into a life of captivity.

Thailand’s laws to protect elephants vary depending on whether an elephant is considered captive or wild. Captive elephants are covered under the Draught Animals Act of 1939, classifying them as livestock. In an attempt to prevent wild elephants to be taken as domestic elephants, Thailand passed the Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act of 1992, making it illegal to trade wild elephants and their products. But there was a loophole that allowed poachers to get around this law. Domestic animals did not need proper documentation until the age of eight, so poachers took baby elephants from the wild, forging their documentation, and selling them an average of USD $33,000 to the tourism industry. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a collection of 183 member countries who determine international standards for animal rights, pressured Thailand to close this legal loophole in 2014. In 2017, Thailand finally began the process of tracking captive elephants by recording the DNA of all captive elephants. All elephants will need to be registered within 90 days of birth.

Although measures are underway to prevent the poaching of wild elephants for captivity, where does that leave the estimated 3,500 – 4,000 captive elephants and their mahouts? John Roberts argues that we cannot simply let all the captive elephants back into the wild. Most captive elephants would not be able to survive without humans, and the unemployed Mahouts would be tempted to find an elephant in the wild.

Roberts manages a foundation in Thailand on the border of Myanmar and Laos that employs mahouts and their captive elephants. The foundation provides appropriate nutrition, veterinary care and jungle space for captive elephants, supports mahout families, conducts research, and funds wild elephant conservation initiatives. John believes “it is not practical at this stage to put [captive elephants] back into the wild, so we have to find ways to look after them and the communities that depend on them while trying to manage the captive population down.” Ideally, he would like to see all the elephants back into the wild. For now, tourists should demand appropriate treatment of captive elephants and international groups should continue to pressure Thailand to enforce DNA tracking for captive elephants, ensuring that no new wild elephants are poached for captivity in the tourism industry.

For more information on elephants, visit www.disappearingelephants.com.


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