A cultural icon that Thailand abandoned
Once a sacred national symbol, the elephant is facing possible extinction due to human greedThai Elephant Day on Wednesday was celebrated as the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference takes place in Bangkok.
In spite of the current worldwide attention on Thai elephants, these magnificent creatures still face an uncertain future.
The elephant is supposed to be considered a sacred animal in this country. As a result, the government announced the first Thai Elephant Day 15 years ago, to raise awareness of the elephants' plight, especially with the amount of natural forest area declining so rapidly and the resultant decline in wild populations. With the loss of natural habitat and work opportunities, many captive elephants are now taken by their mahouts to wander around cities, begging for food. Other elephants, even less fortunate, are killed by poachers for their ivory. All of this is threatening the future of an animal that has been considered synonymous with the kingdom.
Through the ages, elephants have been almost inseparable from the traditional way of life of Thai people. When Thais co-existed with nature, elephants were used as a means of transport and to haul logs, thus contributing to human prosperity. The elephant was considered a noble animal, and a "warrior animal". In times of war, only the commanders were entitled to ride one into battle. The elephant is a part of our culture. At one time, the national flag bore a white elephant on a maroon field.
Thailand should be the most active nation in the campaign to protect elephants. We have every reason to be, but unfortunately this is not the case. Far from it: the reality shows the opposite.
Thailand - which is supposed to be an exemplary model for others in terms of elephant protection - is at the centre of the illegal trade in live elephants and products derived from elephants, especially ivory. It is even reported that African elephants are illegally imported here.
Outdated legislation on the elephant trade even allows for the trade in "pet" elephants. Loopholes in the law simply encourage the illegal smuggling of elephants into Thailand.
It is no exaggeration to say that elephants are facing extinction, with so many being killed to satisfy the world's appetite for ivory. The newly wealthy middle classes in emerging economies such as Thailand and China use ivory for decorative items because they believe that ivory brings good luck. Such superstition is utter nonsense.
In the past, Thais did not kill elephants just to get the tusks, because they believed such a wrongful way to get ivory would instead bring back luck. Nowadays poachers use tranquillisers to sedate the elephant and then sever the tusks, often in a sloppy manner. The elephant might not die immediately, but its wounds are so terrible that they become infected, leading to a slow and painful death.
Whenever news breaks about an elephant found with its tusks removed and left in critical condition, there is strong sympathy from the public, and cries for a clampdown on poaching and new laws to protect elephants. But public sympathy alone will do nothing to improve the situation.
Most of the ivory sold on the market today is illegally obtained. Outdated laws even allow for certain types of trade in elephants and elephant products. Thus, it is often difficult to prove whether an elephant has been smuggled or ivory was procured and sold legally.
Compounding the problem is the fact that - typically in developing countries - the laws, no matter how lax, are not enforced. In many cases the authorities themselves are involved in the smuggling of wild animals or ivory. It is a tempting business, with huge sums of money to be made on the black market.
Ultimately the issue comes down to education, awareness and conscience. If there were no demand, there would be no supply. The government must launch a serious campaign to make the public aware of the value and importance of elephants, and a new law must be enacted for their protection, with severe penalties for those who violate it.
If this does not happen, the supply of new ivory will cease anyway, whether that brings good luck or bad.