Jerking knees or dancing to a sub-sonic tune? (on a seeming raft of new laws and initiatives)
Thailand needs a new law to govern the use and define the misuse of elephants on this we all agree. Over the past few days, it seems, some new laws have been passed, some have been mooted and others have been ignored.
The way we govern our elephants seems to be a hot topic at this moment, lawmakers seem to be looking our way, but why, after all this time talking about it & trying to light the oven, do we suddenly find ourselves holding a hot potato (& how long can we keep it hot)?
Why do we need a new law? ...& can we agree what it should contain? Rather than bang on with my own ideas I'll introduce you to an expert, Mr Richard Lair, for some background:
So Richard (& for those of you who don't know him, he's dedicated his life to working with the Government to improve the lot of the Thai elephants and is the leading foreign expert on the subject) is suggesting that a new law contain:
- Regulation of working hours.
- Requirements of a basic standard of nutrition.
- Mandatory retirement age. (incidentally, I thought we already had one of these at 61).
- Regulation, inspection and rating of elephant camps by independent individuals.
As Richard says, just common sense.
At Chulalongkorn University there has been another long term study leading to a editorial comment in the Thai Journal of Veterinary Medicine somewhat dramatically entitled "Roadmap to Torture: Captive Thai Elephant and the Anecdote" by Dr. Sumolya Kanchanapangka (who we know not only because she was one of our very own Dr Cherry's professors at University but because she also gave a paper on the scientific determination of elephant welfare at the EU Asia-Link Project Symposium in Chiang Mai).
She quotes from the 1939 law which states "THE OWNER HAS THE RIGHT TO TRADE AND USE THE ANIMAL AT WILL", she points to the fact that the demand for domestic elephants is driving a decrease in the wild population (she stresses a Thai population, I see a smuggled neighbouring population - &, at the risk of hitting my soap box too early, the major demand for domestic elephants nowadays in a dropping tourism market had to be for the buy-to-rescue business) and, most importantly for this piece, she makes a number of recommendations for any new law:
- Tight registration of all captive born elephants within thirty days after birth (the law currently stands at 8 years) and every five years until 60 years of age.
- Microchipping and DNA analysis of all captive elephants (work for this is currently underway but it is not legally binding - all our eles and most others inside the system are microchipped). Establishing a database of these and all following information.
- Pictures and records of all sides of the elephants and all distinguishing marks.
- Measurement of elephant body parts for weight calculation. Birth, health, breeding and deceased, translocation and transfer of title records should be included.
Written on the certificate of ownership should be:
- Physical marks (tusks, scars, ear irregularities, pattern of tail hair, number of toe nails etc.) at 30 days and every five years until 60.
- Microchip & DNA analysis of the elephants (also both parents if available)
Requirements for elephant camps & breeding facilities
- Facility registration (this concurs with one of Richard's)
- Report of the number of calves produced.
- Random inspections of the facilities concerning the welfare of the elephants.
- Good record keeping requirement.
Now, I can't find anything in there to argue with, partially I guess because we already follow all of these protocols, and I have and will continue to say that anyone buying an elephant without this sort of paperwork (of course the DNA analysis will take some time to implement) is being, at best, reckless and at worst willfully negligent. If you buy an elephant without this sort of back up you have no way of knowing whether it was wild caught or illegally smuggled from a neighbouring country and if you give money to an elephant smuggler or an elephant abuser you just make it profitable for him to smuggle & abuse another elephant.
We've seen what the experts think, now let's look at the new laws:
The Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (as the 1939 law gives the owner carte blanche to do as he chooses it falls to individual administrative areas to write & enforce the laws in their cities) have toughened the penalties for mahouts who take their elephants on the streets (though the Bangkok Post maintains the old fine was around 500 baht, our boys insist it usually cost about 5,000 baht to get caught & released, not sure where the discrepancy arose), have made confiscation legal (previously authorities had to go through the process of checking DNA in order to confiscate for two weeks), introduced a 6 month jail sentence for repeat offenders and, somewhat controversially, introduced fines for land owners on whose land the elephants camp and a 10,000 baht fine for anyone caught feeding the elephants.
Several camps and authorities have agreed to buy the elephant of anyone who claims they cannot afford to look after it, some offer to employ the mahout after purchasing the elephant.
Meanwhile, at a federal level the Government is looking to change the laws on the export of Thai elephants to the rest of the world, currently we are under a moratorium that prevents all elephants from being legally exported although that is due to run out soon and so the situation would return to export being legal when strictly adhering to the CITES guidelines which allow for domestic bred elephants to be exported for conservation (breeding programmes & the like) and educational purposes only.
It seems that the new law is intended to relax this to allow for easier export to certain countries once Thailand has a stable population. I personally don't see anything inherently wrong with sending Thai elephants abroad as long as they are well looked after in another country and we can guarantee that they weren't wild caught or that their purchase to send abroad doesn't lead to wild capture or smuggling - other, perhaps better informed, activists see many motives for this change in the law and have stated them to the press.
I include the example only as an excuse to wonder, why, when the experts are able to point to some common sense changes in the law and the law makers are able to change the law why the changes being proposed aren't those recommended by the experts. It would seem counterproductive to change the law on export before you tighten the elephant registration law to prevent wild capture and smuggling.
...and while the toughening of the laws on street walking elephants are to be broadly welcomed I feel (even the contentious one of the fine for feeding - it is not as though it is not an easy law not to break) we would need, somehow, to make it federal as once illegal in Bangkok we have found that many elephants will go to other towns.
But the larger problem, as I see it, lies in the 'generous' offers of rescue and for this final paragraph or so I'd like you to put yourselves in the shoes of an impoverished mahout and acknowledge the existence of unscrupulous elephant dealers, for we know these creatures exist, and several international investigations have shown that the current registration law allows for illegal smuggling of elephants from our land neighbours, a leading Thai elephant conservationist has conversationally presented evidence that some are wild caught, some are captive bred. Let the role play begin, this is not as far fetched as you might think and there is good evidence that this is happening:
"Perhaps I'll start out honest and impoverished, why not, I'm in Bangkok with my elephant, it is a tough life but I get me, my family and my ele fed. I get busted a few times and it's looking like confiscation and maybe a jail sentence coming up when a kindly policemen tells me of an alternative offer, in order to stop the problem of street elephants some places will buy my ele, and at market rates too, some will even give me a job looking after an elephant. Fantastic, let's have their number...
...after the deal I get to thinking, remember old cousin Somsak? Didn't he get an old elephant really cheap up country somewhere, something too old to work, or was it injured, can't remember? But still, remember he needed an elephant 'cause what's a mahout without an elephant, right? Didn't have much money so that was all he could get but he lived out his days happy as a mahout. What happens if I get my son, he's got no work, the waster, sitting at home drinking whisky, to bring one of these cheap elephants into town, use half the money my donor just gave me to buy it, it can limp around 'til it's arrested, might even get some better tips too if people feel sorry for it, then we'll sell it to our generous new friends, make tidy profit.
A couple of months later I got to thinking again, elephants are even cheaper in Burma, I know a guy who said he knew a guy who could get them in, get some paperwork for them, still keep the price low..."
...you get the picture, where there's a buyer there's a market, where there's a market there's a businessman and where there's an honest businessman unfortunately there is, more often than not, another dishonest businessman who is willing to take advantage of the weaknesses in the law.
The point of the piece is not to criticise the new laws or the law makers but perhaps to underline my agreement with Dr. Sumolya that if we are going to change any elephant laws we should first look at the ones on elephant registration and to ask that, before we loosen the regulations on export and create a law that legally binds the exporting authority to ''to closely monitor the export of Thai elephants and their condition while they are abroad. The regulation will authorise us to recall the jumbos if they face poor treatment at foreign zoos or other places.", would it not make sense to have a law that provides for this, or at least defines it, in our own country?
In short, we need a new elephant law, but it needs to be all encompassing.