The problem with elephants

The problem with elephants

Government officials perpetuated a general misunderstanding when they called in the media after the remains of a male elephant were found near Kaeng Krachan National Park in the upper South. On flimsy evidence, they claimed that poachers had killed the animal, and ripped the tusks from its severed head. When animal experts arrived a day later, the story changed. The dead elephant was actually a female in the late stages of pregnancy. There was no ivory, and almost certainly no poaching.

The immensely sad story of the pregnant elephant and its calf bears no resemblance to the first, official version. Investigations continue, but a completely different set of facts is emerging. The elephant was probably killed by local villagers, not professional hunters. She was not killed because she was valuable; on the contrary it appears the elephant died because the locals considered it less valuable than their vegetable crops or orchards.

Clashes between man and elephants are lamentably common in the upper South and some adjacent central provinces. Man plants crops, elephants forage in the farms, man kills elephants. It has happened far too frequently in Phetchaburi, Prachuab Khiri Khan and nearby provinces over decades. The story that poachers kill elephants for their ivory fits the international perspective of a heartless Thailand that has no feeling for elephants. But this is a false story and image.

Thailand has trouble with elephants, but the problems are rarely, if ever, connected to ivory. Sometimes, as what probably happened in Kaeng Krachan district last week, elephants are killed by villagers close to the beasts' natural habitat. Far more often, however, elephants are rustled _ stolen from their habitat _ because an elephant is far more valuable alive than its ivory could ever be.

The poacher angle, which also fits the monolithic storyline of the recent Cites conference, is often used by forest officials in Kaeng Krachan National Park. Villagers have long claimed forest rangers and park officials are corrupt and collude in elephant rustling. The officials, however, charge that the villagers are poaching elephants for ivory. National park authorities have long sought to expel villagers on or near park land, as illegal encroachers.

The country's hopeless laws and regulations on elephants lie at the root of the problem with these large and almost universally loved animals. The system draws a distinct line between wild and domesticated elephants, with different rules for each. The law almost invites cheating.

Domestic elephants are chattel, able to be bought, sold and shipped. The wild elephants in Kaeng Krachan National Park, in particular, are under pressure from two directions, both equally dangerous to the animals' lives. Villagers may confront and kill them for trampling their crops, while criminals including state employees try to capture them and forge or counterfeit documents to make them appear domesticated.

There are several problems other than poaching. Fudged figures and cooked books on registration are greater threats to these wonderful beasts.

The "elephant problem" in Thailand is certainly a people problem, just not ivory traders. Solving the problem and saving elephants will require new and proper regulations. Civil and non-government groups have major roles to play. So do anti-corruption agencies. Merely using phantom poachers as scapegoats, as happened last week, is certain to fail.

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