Elephant Tourism in Thailand Is Fueling a Deadly Black Market in Baby Pachyderms
Millions of people travel to Thailand each year, and many visit one of the country’s many elephant tourist camps, where they ride and pose with the pachyderms. But few probably bother to think about how the animals got there. If they did, they might make other plans.
A new report from U.K.-based wildlife monitoring group Traffic found that rising demand by tourists to commune with Asian elephants is fueling a black market in wild-caught animals.
“The capture of wild elephants for Thailand’s tourism industry poses a serious threat to the future survival of the country’s wild population,” the report said.
Over the past 75 years, the Asian elephant population has declined by up to 50 percent, mostly because of habitat loss and deforestation. “But poaching for the trade in live elephants and their ivory is recognized as another important factor,” the report said.
Thailand is one of 13 Asian nations that trade in elephants to satisfy a growing tourism market. Nearly 1,700 elephants are housed at more than 100 tourist camps. Over a two-year period ending in March 2013, about 80 wild elephants were captured for illegal sale to the Thai tourism industry, according to the report.
Researchers investigated 108 elephant tourist camps, government facilities, and hotels that keep elephants and conducted informal interviews with elephant handlers and owners about the trade.
For instance, the Surin Elephant Festival, billed as the world’s largest animal show, attracts tourists each November to its elephant roundup. The roundup includes a parade of animals marching toward a fresh-fruit “elephant breakfast,” followed by elephant talent shows, demonstrations of elephant capture and training techniques, a soccer game, and a tug-of-war.
Many camps claim to be conservation centers. “The kindest thing that ethical, elephant-loving tourists can do is to visit a camp and enjoy elephants,” according to the website of the government-owned Thai Elephant Conservation Center. “Without work in tourism, elephant owners will have no means to care for their animals.”
Of the 53 elephants in the study whose origin was known, 92 percent were captured in neighboring Burma and smuggled into Thailand.
Wild elephants in Burma are usually snared in pit traps, with domestic elephants driving their wild cousins into harm’s way. Infants are the most valuable and currently fetch up to $33,000 each, a 600 percent increase since 1999. But to capture them, some adults must be eliminated first.
“It was reported that automatic weapons are increasingly being used to kill protective members of the herd,” the report said, “although it was not possible...to verify such statements.” Infants are “mentally broken and prepared for training.”
The Thai government has cracked down recently on illegal trafficking. “Based on research,” the report said, “no indication was received of elephant trade along the border after June 2012.”
That doesn’t mean the practice has stopped.
“The recent clampdown was successful in halting the live elephant trafficking temporarily, at least,” Traffic spokesperson Richard Thomas said in an email. “But unless urgent changes are made to outdated legislation and better systems are introduced to document the origin of elephants...things could quickly revert to how they were.”
Because of the trade’s clandestine nature, the exact number of contraband elephants is unknown. Several studies estimated that 50 to 100 wild elephants are smuggled from Burma to Thailand every year. Another found that 240 elephants were smuggled through a single border crossing over an 18-month period.
So what can be done?
The new report recommended that Interpol and other groups support government enforcement efforts, and that local laws be changed to ensure that elephants are registered shortly after birth.
Thai authorities should also encourage tourists to report poor conditions, treatment, or care of elephants used in the industry, according to the report.
“I’ve seen considerable concern expressed over the treatment of animals before they ever reach the parks and during the process when they are mentally broken after being captured from the wild,” Thomas said. “By all accounts, this involves severe beating of the animals.”
“There are perfectly legitimate camp owners,” he added. “But if you’re not sure that the place you’re visiting is legitimate or is caring for the animals they’ve acquired, don’t spend your money there.”