'Resurgence of smuggling in Myanmar threat to wild Asian elephants'

Smugglers resort to torture to capture and train elephant calves, says report by wildlife monitoring network

By Moushumi Sharma
Published: Wednesday 09 July 2014

Cruel treatment of wild Asian elephants by smugglers in Myanmar could threaten the animal’s survival, a study says. It claims that elephants are brutally treated while being tamed for tourist trekking camps in Thailand. The study was conducted by Campaigners Traffic, a wildlife monitoring network. It states that between 2011 and 2013, at least 81 elephants were illegally captured for sale into the tourism industry.

Cruel intention, more cruel action

A media house reports that the method to capture and train the elephants is brutal. Domesticated animals are used to herd wild elephants into pit traps, where the older members are often shot. The younger elephants are taken to the Thailand-Myanmar border where they are “broken in”. As elephant calves are more popular with tourists, their demand has soared. A healthy calf is currently sold for $33,000.

Most of the calves captured are beaten into submission. “They are put in small log boxes and cruelly beaten. They are a bit like a light switch; you take a wild elephant and beat it long enough and suddenly the switch goes off and you have a tamed elephant. It is a cruel business,” Chris Shepherd from Campaigners Traffic told the media house.

Porous border aids trafficking

In 2012, the Thai government clamped down on traffickers and was successful in curbing to a large extent the smuggling of wild elephants through the porous border from Myanmar. Campaigners Traffic claims wild elephants continue to be trapped as smugglers believe the crackdown will end. Conservationists say resurgence in smuggling could spell doom for the species’ survival.
“We have information that dealers in Myanmar are holding elephants, waiting for enforcement vigilance to be relaxed. Wildlife in that country is being completely hammered, by habitat loss but also by the trade. Borders are extremely porous, and wildlife is being taken across all the time,” Chris told the media house.

Call to tighten anti-trafficking law

Traffic and other campaigners have urged the Thai government to toughen the law. If an animal is captured at the border it can be seized. But if it gets inside the country, chances of rescue become dim. According to the law in Thailand, elephants don’t have to be registered until they are eight years old. This increases the chance of smuggled calves to be “laundered” into the domestic population.

Last year, Thailand made significant efforts to ban legal trade in ivory ahead of a meeting of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). But political turmoil over the past two years has hampered the strengthening of laws. Campaigners fear that while laws exist on the statute books, they are not always enforced. They hope that a CITES meeting in Switzerland next week will build up pressure on both Thailand and Myanmar to act on the issue.

Raise awareness among tourists

Joanna Cary-Elwes from the charity Elephant Family told the media house that tourists, especially at trekking facilities, need greater awareness about the smuggling situation. Millions of people flock to Thailand every year. “Most don’t realise when they pose next to a baby elephant what that animal has had to endure to be in a camp,” she said.


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