Un-substantiated rumours ringing a little true...
For some years now some of the great elephant conservators in Thailand have been suggesting that certain people in the elephant business have been cashing in on a trade of wild caught elephants - I have never seen any proof of this in Thailand and could never see why anyone would bother to catch elephants from the wild when there are 2,000 domestic still in Thailand.
The catching and training of wild elephants is a dangerous and complicated business; if the traditional methods are used it is highly labour intensive and requires an almost permanent infrastructure to be set up and maintained in an area adjacent to the elephant forest. My feeling has always been that this would have to be on the border of a National Park and couldn't be done in secret.
The traditional methods were always designed to catch young adult elephants and, to my understanding, involved the catching of the entire herd, the selection and separation of the chosen animals and then the release of the traumatised herd. The great old silent movie Chang - in which the elephants and the jungle are the anti-heroes - tells the supposedly true story of a calf captured in a trap being rescued by the wild herd who come back to destroy the hero's village.
If non-traditional methods were used to capture babies they could be less intrusive but given the herding and maternal nature of elephants and the mountainous thorny terrain inhabited by Thailand's remaining wild elephants it would seem to me almost as though an entire herd would have to be shot for one baby - the books and all those National Geographic documentaries of African elephants tell us that even if you anaesthetised the chosen baby it would be difficult, to say the least, to persuade the herd to leave the body of the stricken one.
So my feeling has always been that wild capture in Thailand would be so expensive as to be impractical.
I am, however, convinced that there is an illegal trade of baby elephants coming into Thailand and logging age elephants going to her neighbours. The laws, rules, regulations and basic conservation thought make this a bad idea but to business people and elephant owning communities this makes sense. There is precious little work for an adult elephant in Thailand but logging continues in her neighbours, there is no immediate use for a baby in the neighbouring states but Thai cities are full of them making money for their owners. National borders are, after all, relatively recently drawn and CITES even more recently bought into effect. The long term problems this trade would cause to our neighbours' forests and the mental stability of Thailand's increasingly young street elephant population are not high on the priority list for elephant owning communities and businesses.
But the article below (from India) has got me thinking, what if wild elephants are captured outside Thailand and bought inside? Elephant human conflict in Assam is well documented, we hear some news from Laos on the elephant telegraph though it seldom makes print and there is never any news from Burma but several towns on the Burmese border, particularly those up in the jungles and mountains, seem to be breeding a lot of baby elephants.
In a country where anything goes, where local people's crops are regularly being trampled by wild elephants, where people are struggling just to keep food on the table an illegal wild capture programme might not only be practical it might it also not have broad grass roots support? If it can be rumoured to be happening in Assam why not her less regulated neighbours?
Just a thought.
Elephants in the black market (India)Geetanjali Krishna, Rediff NewsDecember 16, 2006I'd dearly love to own a beast of my own...," said Raj Singh, describing his job as an elephant handler to me, adding, "except that most of us mahouts can't afford them!"Which isn't surprising, as a healthy female elephant (which Jaipur mahouts prefer, for they're supposedly more docile) could cost more than a new Maruti van, he said. That's why he was constantly on the lookout for animals going cheap.I asked where they normally bought elephants. "Sadly, they don't breed in Rajasthan," said Singh, "so I've often gone to the annual animal fair in Bihar to source them for my employers."Lowering his voice, he added, "I've recently heard that there are some suppliers in Assam selling elephants cheap." I asked why and he said nonchalantly, "I'm not really sure, but some say maybe they steal them from the jungles!"This was a big deal, I realised. Given the fact that elephants are Schedule 1 animals, their trade is illegal. The wildlife department does issue permits, but elephant handlers say these are hard to obtain."The red tape doesn't deter people from buying elephants - it just forces people to forge the permits," Singh shrugged. Others, he said, who managed to get one permit, kept as many as a dozen elephants on it: "After all, it's not easy to tell one elephant from another, and if they're not kept together, who can possibly keep track!"My mind was boggling at the sheer ease with which something as large and temperamental as an elephant could be hidden so easily from the authorities. "But surely someone would spot the stolen elephants en route from Assam to Rajasthan," I protested, "isn't there checking at the state borders?" "Which world do you live in madam?" Singh countered, "there are ways of getting through all the checkposts, past every possible barrier." So, of course, I wanted to know exactly how the poachers and black marketers did it."After the poachers steal the elephants - and mind you, I've heard they usually take young calves which are easier to tame - they arrange with transporters to ferry them across the country in trucks," Singh explained, adding quickly that being only a mahout and not an elephant buyer, this information was only on hearsay."The truck takes about eight days, sometimes a day more, to reach Jaipur from Assam," he said, "that's the standard time taken for cargo to be transported across that much distance."But we were talking elephants here, I protested, creatures not generally known for their docility, especially when they were being kidnapped. How did they handle being cooped up in a smelly bumpy vehicle for such a long time, I asked."All I know is that they reach the market in passable health," said Singh, "the elephants represent a lot of money, so obviously they are well taken care of!" I wondered whether the animals needed to be manacled: "How else would they ensure they didn't peep out at an inter-state barrier?" I asked.The mahout shrugged, obviously not interested by my interest in the logistics of it all. "They probably starve the elephants a little, I guess, which makes them lethargic and docile. And give a hefty shot of sedative if that fails!" he said.Weren't the buyers of poached elephants risking getting caught without papers by the authorities? I was sure it would take all sorts of ingenuity to explain away a stolen elephant. Singh grinned: "At the end of the day, if buying a stolen animal means I get it cheap, I'm willing to take my chances!"