What began as a supposed attempt to stamp out elephant poaching has turned into a conflict of jumbo proportions.
GRAND DEMONSTRATION: Elephant owners and mahouts are threatening to march to Bangkok with their animals if the government proceeds with a bill to transfer state authority over the species. PHOTO: SUNTHON PONGPAO
After initially backing down on their threat to bring their animals to Bangkok last Monday to protest against a series of raids and elephant seizures, almost 100 elephants and their mahouts are expected to march on Government House tomorrow.
They say the raids have unfairly persecuted legitimate camp operators, and they are particularly concerned by a proposed bill that would bring domesticated elephants under the control of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. ''This is the first time that several groups of people who raise or work with domesticated elephants have banded together to fight,'' said protest leader Laithongrien Meepan, who operates Royal Elephant Kraal in Ayutthaya province.
''Domesticated elephants have existed in Thai history and society for a very long time. They have cultural value which the DNP [Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation] does not understand.'' During a meeting at the Interior Ministry on Monday which sought to ease the tension, Prime Minister's Officer deputy secretary-general Suporn Atthawong complained that state agencies _ namely the DNP and the Royal Thai Police Natural Resources and Environmental Crime Suppression Division (NRECS) _ have triggered political turmoil rather than solve the problem of elephant poaching.
The conflict centres mainly on proposed changes to domesticated elephant registration laws. Under the amendment, the DNP would take over the task of regulating domesticated elephants from the Interior Ministry's Department of Provincial Administration.
Domesticated elephants now fall under the Beasts of Burden Act, which authorises the Interior Ministry to issue ownership certificates for captive elephants.
But the DNP wants the task shifted to better control the shelters as wildlife authorities have found many elephants lack certification or have fake documents, indicating they might have been caught in the wild.
The draft law would also allow wildlife authorities to confiscate elephants if the owner fails to produce ownership certificates for domesticated elephants and inspect private elephant shelters to make sure they live in decent conditions.
Violators of the law would face 10-year jail terms and/or a fine of up to 2 million baht.
RAIDS AND RETRIBUTION
During the past few years, the DNP and environmental crime suppression police have seized a number of elephants, mostly from elephant camps but also from several villages in the North and Northeast.
REHABILITATING: Some seized elephants have been under care at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre. PHOTOS: TUNYA SUKPANICH
Many of these elephants are taken under suspicion that they were poached from the wild and illegally registered. Some do not have any registration documents at all.
The policy has proved unpopular with mahouts and camp operators, who say they are being bullied by state authorities.
Villagers who raise domesticated elephants, especially in the provinces of Surin and Chaiyaphum, have complained about the raids to the Prime Minister's Office several times in the past year.
The complaints spurred the establishment of a sub-committee to assist villagers who raise domesticated elephants, chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Pracha Promnok.
One of the immediate measures proposed by the sub-committee was to halt all raids and seizures of elephants until a concrete solution is worked out.
Police and the DNP, however, failed to heed the panel's advice and have continued their systematic raiding of elephant camps across the country.
''The raids have continued and villagers feel very frustrated,'' says Surasit Mutusahim, who sits on the sub-committee as a representative of elephant breeders.
''We have decided that we must take a stronger stand against the government to gain their attention.''
In last Monday's meeting, police explained that the raids and seizures have followed investigations which point to young wild elephants being captured and trained along the Thai-Myanmar border and then being sent to certain elephant parks. Once at the parks, they are registered illegally as domesticated elephants.
''We take legal action when we find elephants that have been falsely registered or not registered at all,'' said Pol Col Watcharin Phusit of the NRECS.
But elephant owners say the police are being overzealous in their approach to animal seizures.
According to Pol Col Watcharin, some 105 elephants seized from elephant parks in the South alone last year were returned to their owners after it was later found they were legally registered.
DUTY OF CARE
The DNP normally cares for seized elephants while the police investigation is taking place. Most are sent to the Forestry Industry Organisation's Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang province.
Due to the recent increase in the number of elephant seizures, however, the conservation centre has become overpopulated and a policy of ''seize in place'' has been implemented instead.
Under that policy, the animals are technically seized, but left under the care of their owners under the condition that they cannot be moved from the site.
The DNP pays the owner about 260 baht per day _ in most cases less than the cost of food for the animals. However, if the elephant dies while the investigation is ongoing, the owner must pay a 3 million baht fine to the DNP.
''This is very unfair to elephant owners. We have lost income because the seized elephants cannot work. We do not get any compensation when we are proved not guilty,'' breeder representative Mr Surasit says.
''If our elephant dies in our care after being seized by the police, we have to pay a 3-million-baht fine. But if a seized animal dies while in DNP custody, the agency is not legally obliged to pay any fine or compensation.''
TALES OF MISTREATMENT
Elephant cow Phang Tangmo was two years old when it was confiscated from owner Naetiwin Amorsin in June last year. Mr Naetiwin produced an ownership certificate for Phang Tangmo but officials said descriptions in the document failed to match the actual animal, and the mahout was ''unclear'' about how he obtained the elephant.
The elephant was sent to stay at the conservation centre in Lampang. When the case was thrown out of court 15 months later, Mr Naetiwin went to the centre to collect Phang Tangmo, only to find the animal on the brink of death.
He claims he found the elephant had injuries ''all over her body'' and could not stand. It appeared paralysed and in poor health. He was told by a veterinarian at the centre that Phang Tangmo could die within two months.
The mahout said the 15-month confiscation had left Phang Tangmo at risk of ''imminent death'' because of poor treatment.
''Phang Tangmo is like my daughter and we have a long bonding. An elephant caretaker must live with his elephant,'' he said.
During talks between state agencies and elephant owners last Monday, the owners insisted that the Interior Ministry should remain in charge of registration.
They called for a blanket registration and issuance of identity certificates for all elephants currently in captivity, reasoning that it is too difficult to sort out the legal ones from the illegal. After the registration is completed, a stricter system of regulation could be implemented to ensure no new wild elephants are poached and sent to camps.
''New registration documents would mean we can no longer be accused of involvement in poaching animals from the wild,'' said Mr Laithongrien, the protest leader.
Some conservationists fear that a rush to register domesticated elephants would mean more wild ones will slip through the system. But Mr Laithongrien dismissed that possibility.
He claimed most baby elephants are born in captivity in Karen villages along the Thai-Myanmar border. He said those villages have some 200 elephants as their breeding stock.
''With some 35 elephants as breeding stock at my elephant park, 62 elephants have been born in captivity during the past 17 years,'' he said. Each calf can fetch as much as a million baht when sold.
Identity certificates for captive elephants have long been a major problem, however, as the system is plagued by loopholes.
The certificates themselves are a single piece of paper containing only the name of the elephant owner, the name of the elephant, the number of toenails, and a description of the elephant's tusks and other visible markings.
Those captured from the wild can be easily registered as domesticated and obtain their identity certificate.
The problem has become increasingly complicated due to the growing number of unregistered animals being used to supply the booming elephant park business in many tourist provinces.
Soraida Salwala, founder of Friends of the Asian Elephant Foundation, noted that the issue of identity certificates has been discussed for almost 20 years. ''Things would have been easier if the state agencies took action to improve the registration system and identity certificates in the past five or six years when the actual number of captive elephants was estimated at 3,000,'' she said.
At present, the number of domesticated elephants in Thailand is not known because two different sets of figures are provided by the Interior Ministry's registration bureau and the Ministry of Agriculture's National Institute of Elephant Research and Health Service (IER).
The figures given by the institute exceed those reported by the Interior Ministry, which says there are 2,633 captive elephants in 39 provinces. Among them, it says 2,276 have been registered and obtained identity certificates from local registration agencies.
However, the other 357 elephants _ including 130 in Phuket and 86 in Chiang Mai _ have not been registered, the ministry says.
Under the Beasts of Burden Act, captive or domesticated elephants need to be registered and obtain an identity certificate at a district office before they are eight years old.
''The ministry urges the owners to register their elephants early because Section 8 of the Act also says that animals used for work must be registered when they reach 90 days,'' a ministry official said.
Meanwhile, the IER reports that about 4,200 elephants currently live in captivity and have a record of receiving health services from the institute within the past decade.
''The figure comes from the microchips implanted in the elephants,'' IER director and veterinarian Pat Charoenphan said.
''It is not mandatory, but we tell owners that microchips are necessary if the elephant is to receive health care. The microchip is the most reliable identification method.''
Ms Pat is aware that many elephants have more than one microchip implanted in their body, but insists the institute's data is accurate.
''Some elephants have two or three microchips, so we put all the chip numbers on their health records to avoid double counting.''
TERMS OF TRUCE
Elephant owners have proposed the establishment of a new national committee, chaired by the prime minister, to oversee elephant regulation. The committee would comprise villagers and elephant camp operators, as well as senior officials from the Interior Ministry, the Department of Livestock Development, and the Cultural Department. This committee would be responsible for the establishment of the Elephant Institute. The government would also set up an Elephant Fund to help the committee's work as well as to help those who raise domesticated elephants.
Senator Sumol Sutaviriyawat, chairwoman of the forest and wildlife resources sub-committee under the Senate's committee on natural resources and the environment, said the problem must be solved soon or it will only get more complicated.
She said putting all elephants under the management of a single agency would be more effective because the problems wild elephants are facing are related to those affecting domesticated ones.
Trumpets for change
In an attempt to stamp out the fraudulent registration of wild elephants, two approaches have been discussed among state agencies and private organisations.
The first is to consider all elephants _ even domesticated ones _ as wild animals. This would mean that all elephants would be listed as protected animals under the Wildlife Protection and Conservation Act, and fall under the control of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP).
BORN FREE: This seized baby elephant is believed to have been taken from the wild.
The second approach is that domesticated elephants remain under the Beasts of Burden Act, though perhaps with minor tweaks to regulations to ensure better welfare for those animals working in the tourism and entertainment industries.
The DNP apparently favours the first approach, proposing an amendment to the Wildlife Protection and Conservation Act in the belief that it would be instrumental in improving the well-being of domesticated elephants and help to control the poaching of elephants in the wild.
Main points of the proposed amendment:
1) No one is allowed to purchase elephants, elephant carcasses or products, though existing owners are allowed to keep their animals;
2) The trade of elephant carcasses or related products is prohibited;
3) Elephant owners must report and register with concerned government agencies;
4) Elephant owners must take good care of their animals;
5) The DNP is authorised to help elephant owners improve the animals' welfare and safety;
6) Elephant owners must report any change in the number of their privately-owned elephants;
7) Those who own elephant products need to report them to the authorised state agency;
8) Owners are required to inform authorities when they transfer or transport an elephant from one place to another place within 30 days; and
9) Those who own live elephants, elephant carcasses or elephant products must register with authorities within a set time or have the animals/items confiscated.
The amendment would mean that domesticated elephants are removed from the Beast of Burden Act and placed under the control of the DNP rather than the Interior Ministry.
Current owners would be able to continue caring for their elephants, but would be kept under the close watch of authorities, while the elephant trade would be effectively stamped out.
Elephant owners and elephant park operators have expressed fierce opposition to the draft, saying that domesticated elephants should be treated separately from wild elephants.
The DNP will continue with a public hearing process before making a final decision on whether to move forward with the amendment proposal in parliament.
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