CHIANG RAI – Elephant owners in Thailand are protesting against plans to treat domesticated animals the same as those born in the wild. The government says it wants to close a loophole in the law. But owners claim the move could see privately-owned elephants being wrongly confiscated.
This is Lert, a domesticated Asian elephant born in captivity. His nickname is “Handsome”. Like all domesticated elephants in Thailand, he has an identification certificate and an implanted microchip. He can be sold, appear in tourist shows, and at weddings and religious festivals.
A good elephant can earn its owner the equivalent of more than 300 U.S. dollars a month. Elephants born in the wild are protected – and cannot be sold or made to work. But an increasing number are being poached, smuggled into the country and given false identification papers.
Thailand’s wildlife authorities now want to change the law, so they can supervise all elephants, both wild and domesticated. But elephant handlers, known as mahouts, say animals have been misidentified before, and claim new legislation could see domesticated elephants being wrongly seized and removed from their owners.
“In the past we were able to raise our domesticated elephants in the forest. When the government wanted them to have identity papers we took them out of the forest and built a place to keep them. But then the government said they were wild elephants,” said elephant owner Laithongrian Meephan.
At present, wild elephants receive full protection under Thailand’s Wildlife Preservation Act, but controls on domesticated elephants are much less-stringent. The government also wants to clamp down on wild elephants being passed off as domesticated so their tusks can be removed for ivory, which is legal for animals born in captivity but banned for those raised in the wild.
“At the moment we have four problems,” said Theerapat Prayurasiddhi from National Parks, Wildlife and Conservation Department. “One, conflict between humans and wild elephants, which destroy farm buildings; two, wild elephants being poached and sold; three, domesticated elephants being kept in the wrong place and taken into the cities and four, ivory from wild elephants being sold illegally.”
Mahouts say domesticated elephants belong to their owners, not the state. They support the protection of wild animals, but say the authorities shouldn’t interfere in what is effectively private property.
Working elephants has a long history here. Any move to impose restrictions on their use will prove controversial.