Furore intensifies over elephant trade in Thailand
Repeated government raids on respected wildlife sanctuaries have damaged Thailand's image at home and abroad.They may also have undermined the position of the National Parks chief, whose judgment has been called into serious question since revelations that killings of mature elephants in Kaeng Krachan recently were orchestrated to supply babies to elephant tourist parks - with the involvement of top officials in that park, several hours south of Bangkok.
Numerous elephant camps and wildlife centres have been raided since reports emerged in January that a criminal syndicate was selling baby elephants from Burma and national parks to tourist facilities for large sums - up to 900,000 baht each.
There have been claims that up to half of the young tuskers in Thailand have been smuggled in alongside 'fake' surrogate mothers that already have identity papers. A loophole in the law, which does not require babies to be registered till they are eight years old, has aided this trade.
There are also concerns that the use of identity chips and papers is being manipulated and subject to abuse. Many think DNA tests, which are still fairly costly, and the possible introduction of 'passports' for all elephants, are the only way to eliminate this trade and guarantee the real identity of the 3,000 or so pachyderm in Thailand.
The government's response to these allegations was to hit back at the two key accusers by raiding centres that they operate. Why? Some elephant parks are run by businesspeople with money and influence. They have a lot to lose. And tourism chiefs may also fear a backlash if tourists decide they don't want to visit elephant parks with 'captive' babies made docile and compliant by a violent 'breaking of their spirit' by mahouts.
The man who raised the alarm initially was Dutchman Edwin Wiek, who was subsequently punished by a series of raids on the wildlife rescue centre he runs in Phetchaburi. Dozens of National Parks officials and armed border police descended on his facility for more than a week, claiming Wiek had no papers for more than 100 of the 450 animals at his centre, located on temple land and backed by a local abbot.
Videos of animals being taken from Wat Khao Luk Chang - with some harmed in the process - incensed his supporters. Wiek lodged court appeals to fight claims he kept undocumented animals at the site, and has temporarily stepped down as head of the Wildlife Friends Foundation in Thailand (WFFT).
Wiek is no stranger to Thailand. He has lived here for 20 years and speaks fluent Thai. He runs one of the best wildlife facilities in Southeast Asia but has created enemies because he has been prepared to speak out. By repeating his allegations at the Foreign Correspondents Club last month ?- at an event which I hosted - he became a farang marked for revenge.
Other foreigners working in the wildlife sector believe Wiek was rash to speak publicly, saying a backlash against a 'noisy outsider' was inevitable. He has paid a heavy price - receiving death threats and seeing his Thai wife charged at the local police station after the initial raid last month. Channel 3 was also co-opted to air a report detailing the charges against him on the night he spoke at the FCCT.
Wiek has fought intimidation before, in a long-running battle with a large tourist facility in Bangkok, found with dozens of smuggled orang-utans, over 50 of which were eventually flown back to Borneo.
He was publicly backed by another shining light in the local wildlife community - Sangduan "Lek" Chailert, who runs the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in Mae Taeng, 50km north of Chiang Mai. Lek is a short but similarly feisty individual, the winner of a host of international awards for her care for elephants.
Her sanctuary, which has 35 elephants, most of them old and infirm, was also raided. But on March 1, local reporters and TV crews were on hand to challenge parks officials. Why were they harassing one of the country's most admired wildlife activists, who operates an acclaimed facility which is just a sanctuary - a retirement home where elephants roam free?
All facilities with elephants are being checked and ENP had no papers for eight of her beasts, officials said. Privately they were told: "She stepped on someone's toes." Unlike Wiek, Lek opposes the use of elephants at tourist facilities. The Mae Taeng Valley has several hundred elephants and most of her neighbours operate tourist parks. None, I would guess, care for these glorious animals to the level that she does.
DNP officials were filmed in discussions with her lawyer, who requested 30 days to get the documents. They got 15 days. Lek said she feared that any old elephants confiscated might die at government facilities. She vowed to strongly oppose any confiscation.
Meanwhile, the owners of camps along the Burma border and others in Surin - some of them thought to be deeply involved in elephant smuggling - have talked about blocking highways and a petition to the Administrative Court to try to get Damrong Phidet, the National Parks chief, removed.
This comes on top of a protest outside the Thai embassy in London last week and petition signed by tens of thousands supporting Wiek and Lek Chailert. The government is now under attack from both the 'goodies' and the 'baddies'. It has a PR nightmare on its hands - more than 100,000 people have viewed videos of recent raids.
And little appears to have been done to rid the problem that started this whole mess: a park chief accused of murder and possible involvement in the slaying of elephants under his oversight. Surely, he must be the first to go.
And maybe it's time for the government and elephant camp operators to put their houses in order: Pay for a DNA identity system and eliminate the doubts surrounding their operations.
Jim Pollard is a sub-editor at The Nation and a member of the executive committee of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand.