Stamping Out Baby Elephant Smuggling

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An international conference aimed at finding solutions to the rapid decline in numbers of Asian elephants began Monday, amid growing concern about illegal cross-border trafficking of elephant calves.

Thailand is emerging as a regional hub for the smuggling, driven by a rising demand for elephants in tourism and begging, environmentalists said. Baby elephants are smuggled to Thailand from neighboring Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

"This illegal trade across international borders is rife," said Richard Lair, a Thai-based specialist on domesticated Asian elephants and consultant to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization which is organizing the five-day conference in Bangkok.

More than 100 elephant experts are attending from Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Indonesia and Malaysia. Other participants and potential donors for projects have come from Japan and the United States.

There are believed to be 37,000 wild elephants left in South and Southeast Asia and an estimated 15,000-16,000 domesticated ones. The numbers of domesticated elephants has dropped sharply in recent decades as the demand for beasts of burden has reduced with increased mechanization. Thailand alone had about 100,000 domesticated elephants at the start of the last century.

As one way of fighting abuse, the conference is advocating a standardized system of registration for domesticated elephants by implanting microchips in them.

"Registration enables above all else ... good law enforcement, veterinary care, population research, economic studies and any sort of management," said Lair. "More importantly it can help to stop the trade."

Lair believed serious commitment by the countries involved would make it "perfectly possible" to register at least 70-80 percent of domesticated elephants within three years.

Khyne U Mar, Head of Veterinarian Research Center of the state Myanmar Timber Enterprise, warned the cross-border trade threatened conservation work and needed to be addressed urgently.

Baby elephants were little use as a long-term investment in Myanmar where logging is active and requires grown-ups -- a perfect reason to sell them to Thai smugglers.

"Law enforcement on poaching is very, very lax," she said.

Alongkorn Mahannop, a famous Thai veterinarian, said most calves were snatched from their mothers in the wild. That would likely mean killing the mother first and possibly injuring others in the herd that would try to help the calf.

Calves fetch $2,000 to $4,600 depending on their health.

"Last year over 50 calves were delivered to tourist resorts (in Thailand)," Alongkorn said. "Tourists can't resist cute elephant babies."

The calves are trained to perform circus tricks at resorts, and are then sometimes sold and usd for begging on city streets in Thailand.

Parntep Rattanakorn, secretary-general of the Elephant Foundation of Thailand, said that in the past four or five years more than 300 calves have died at Thai elephant hospitals.

"It's a vicious cycle. Domesticated elephants have already faced great trouble in surviving," said Soraida Salwala, founder of Friends of Asian Elephant Foundation. "What's happening to the young calves will only add more misery in the future."