Thailand's jumbo secret

Elephant Tourism

The discovery of six slaughtered elephants in two of Thailand’s national parks last month has exposed a nasty secret about the country’s elephant tourism industry. Conservationists point out that baby elephant trade is a lucrative business in the country, writes Atula Gupta

Thailand’s booming tourism industry owes much of its success to the gentle pachyderm. The elephant has not only been part of the country’s glorious past but is also shaping its future by playing a pivotal role in attracting tourists to this nation. Elephant camps mushrooming across Thailand are proof enough that tourists love taking jumbo rides, but it is the same camps’ relentless need to satisfy their guests that is beginning to affect the wild elephant population. Experts claim that poachers are today working in tandem with corrupt officials to kill mother elephants, abduct their babies and train them for tourist dollars.

The discovery of six slaughtered elephants last month in two of Thailand’s national parks has exposed a nasty secret about the country’s ubiquitous elephant tourism industry.

According to Dutch national Edwin Wiek, founder of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand and conservationists who have spent a lifetime in the country, the baby elephant trade is a lucrative business which is the real reason behind the massacre. He says that the six deaths were just the tip of the iceberg and such hideous crimes were occurring almost every day in Thailand, not for the ivory or meat of the adult animals but to satisfy the growing demand of tourist elephant camps.

Kaeng Krachan and Kui Buri national parks are two of Thailand’s biggest protected areas with more than 500 wild tuskers roaming these regions. According to Wiek, as the demand for elephants is rising in tourist camps and not enough babies are born in captivity, the gap is being filled by wild baby elephants. An elephant calf can fetch up to one million baht (32,260 dollars) at camps in Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai, Hua Hin, Pattaya, Phuket, where they are trained to perform tricks and provide rides for tourists. He argued that the incident demonstrated that the trade in baby pachyderms was no longer just a cross-border business with Myanmar, but that poachers were now targeting Thailand’s own depleted herd of fewer than 2,000 wild elephants.

Entertainment value

Elephants have been revered in Thailand for many centuries. Famous for their strength, valour and pleasant nature, they were important in battle, with kings mounted on elephants fighting the Burmese to defend Thailand on many occasions. A white elephant is even included in the flag of the Royal Thai navy, and the “order of the white elephant” is one of the highest honours, bestowed by the king.

But in history, the biggest association of elephants with locals has been through the timber industry. Renowned as the beast of burden, the Thai people have always relied on jumbo strength for logging. But the Thai emperor banned logging in 1988 and an estimated 3,000 domesticated elephants shifted from the timber industry to tourism.

Even today, the animals are classified as livestock, but require proper ownership papers to prove they are not wild elephants. Because baby elephants don’t require registration papers until they are nine years old, it is fairly easy to get babies poached from the wild and bring them into the legal fold by providing them with foster captive mothers. It also makes it easier to transport them from the forests to the camps. Once in the camps, the calves are torture trained to learn the ways of the human world.

They quickly learn and obey the words of command, get to know their mahout, and get used to being mounted and dismounted.

Poachers who have been interviewed say it is common to kill up to three elephants to take one baby from the forest as elephants bond strongly with the rest of the herd.

According to Wiek, the murderous rituals continue because from almost 100 wild elephants nabbed from the forest, the entire smuggling gang may make a profit of 50 million baht annually even if they do not cut the precious ivory tusk of the dead jumbo.

He adds that a simple DNA test can prove that the captive elephants and their claimed offspring are not related.

Cost of tourism

Although Thai officials have denied all these charges blatantly and have also raided Wiek’s animal rescue centre on grounds of unfinished paperwork, those on the field believe that the conservationist’s allegations are not fabricated. “Burma has logging but no tourism, while Thailand has tourism but no logging, and the Burmese want the Yankee dollar and the Thais have it because this is a cash economy,” said Richard Lair, author of a book on Thailand’s elephant industry. “So just as water flows to the lowest level, elephants flow to money.”

With a six-per cent share, tourism is a growing contributor to Thailand’s economy and ironically the nation has the same six per cent of the world’s population of Indian elephants. The population size reduction of this endangered species has been inferred to be at least 50 per cent over the last three generations.

The tug of war between material want and ecological treasure thus continues. Offered in sacrifice are none other than the nation’s pachyderms.

While tourists spend about 15 dollars for an hour-long elephant ride, the price the elephant is paying for this joy ride is its own life. As the entertainment quotient rises, the downfall of Thailand’s cultural icon is certain.

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