Bangkok - 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.
Dutch national Edwin Wiek, founder of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, jumped on the wild elephants' gruesome demise in Kaeng Krachan and Kiu Buri parks to draw attention to a lucrative trade in baby elephants that has been carried out with the seeming compliance of government officials.
In an article titled Thai Elephants Are Being Killed for Tourist Dollars published in The Nation newspaper on January 24, Wiek said that the six elephants had been killed to get their babies, not for elephant meat and ivory as claimed by government officials.
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.
Based on his own investigations, Wiek estimates that two to three baby elephants are poached from the wild per week.
A baby elephant can fetch up to 1 million baht at camps in Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai, Hua Hin, Pattaya, Phuket, where they are trained to perform tricks and provide rides for tourists.
Foreign tourists might think twice about supporting the elephant business with their money if they were aware that many of animals had been poached from the wild and their parents slaughtered, Wiek said.
After the article was published, 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 officials demanded to see ownership documents for some 400 animals kept at the wildlife rescue charity, established in 2001.
Although Wiek had proper ownership documents for his six pachyderms, national park officials claimed that 103 smaller mammals lacked proper documentation and vowed to confiscate them.
The animal sanctuary was still under armed guard this week.
Wiek has claimed that the raid was revenge for his exposure of the authorities' complacency, if not complicity, in a booming business in baby elephant trafficking.
Thai authorities claim 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,” Damrong said.
The first two animal sanctuaries on Damroing's hit list happened to be the department's most outspoken critics.
The Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai was raided by 100 national park department officials on February 8, days after its charismatic founder Sangduen Chailert gave an interview on Thai TV Channel 9 about the illegal traffic in baby elephants.
Sangduen, better known by her nickname Lek, runs a sanctuary for some 71 pachyderms, many of them elderly or 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.”
In Thailand, where elephants have been used as beasts of burden in the timber industry for centuries, the animals are classified as “livestock,” but require proper ownership papers to prove they are not wild elephants.
There are an estimated 3,000 domesticated elephants in Thailand, many of which have been shifted from the timber industry to tourism since the kingdom banned logging in 1988.
Since baby elephants don't require registration papers until they are 9 years old, it is fairly easy to get babies poached from the wild into the legal fold by providing them with foster mothers.
Wiek has urged Thai authorities to collect DNA data on all domesticated female elephants in Thailand as an easy way of proving whether their babies are their own or kidnapped from the wild.
While many of his colleagues in the animal protection business have criticized Wiek's confrontational approach, nobody denies that the baby elephant trade exists, although the traffic seems to be chiefly in baby elephants poached from Myanmar, also called Burma.
“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.” - Sapa-dpa