People often find it difficult to understand how something as large as an elephant could be smuggled across a border without someone noticing or stopping the crime.
An elephant, painted in various national flag colours, greets tourists during a parade to mark the 2014 World Cup. The use of elephants in the tourism and entertainment industry has intensified their smuggling and abuse. PAWAT LAOPAISARNTAKSIN
Yet this is exactly the fate of many wild Asian elephants that are illegally captured here and in Myanmar. They supply demand generated by Thailand’s lucrative tourism and entertainment industry.
Thailand’s laws have a gaping hole that allows unscrupulous elephant traders and camp owners to get away with the practice.
Thai laws only allow animals born from female domesticated elephants to be registered with the government and then only when the calf turns eight.
But the owner is not asked to prove the animal was born in captivity.
This allows criminals to catch calves from the wild, smuggle them into the country and register them as domesticated elephants. They are then deemed commercial animals and can be traded.
This illegal capture and trade of elephants is a crime which takes place far from the minds of holidaymakers who take the elephant rides that sadly also help support the industry and drive the trade.
Rapid growth of tourism and demand for Asian elephants in entertainment means there are strong economic incentives to capture and trade live animals within the country and in other elephant range states.
The capture of a single young elephant often results in the slaughter of the mother and other family members.
Once removed from the forest, calves are subjected to a breaking-in process where they are tied up, confined, starved and beaten. Some do not survive.
Even as they clamber atop the animal for a ride, few tourists have any understanding of the terrible journey the elephants may have taken to get there.
For far too long, Thailand has escaped scrutiny over its inability to address and straighten out weak laws that allow the problems to continue.
This week, the country’s delay in amending elephant legislation will be one of several topics discussed by world governments at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), which prohibits international commercial trade in Asian elephants.
This scrutiny could ultimately cost Thailand, and have an adverse impact on its tourism industry.
True, Thailand has taken some action in the past year that momentarily arrested the illegal trade.
However, there has been no news of offenders being prosecuted, and the loopholes in the law remain.
So, it is only a matter of time before criminals come out of the shadows and get back to business.
Thailand must fix the elephant registration system, close the various loopholes and stamp out the corruption that has enabled the laundering of wild-caught elephant calves.
Owners must be required to register elephant calves at birth and provide proof the animals were born in captivity.
The authorities must put in place a system to verify such proof and monitor traders and camps, prosecuting anyone who flouts the law.
Urgent reform is also necessary to make the plethora of laws concerning elephants in Thailand to actually work in favour of the elephant.
Currently there are 18 laws governing the ownership and trade of elephants, overseen by five ministries.
The protection and management of elephants, both captive and wild, should fall under a single law — the Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act — that simplifies and clarifies responsibilities for management, enforcement, and oversight, and fully protects the animals.
At the same time, Thailand’s tourism industry must move away from the exploitation of wildlife.
Tourists will be rightly horrified when faced with the reality of the live elephant trade and the unwitting part they play in a sinister wildlife racket. As awareness grows, so will the outrage.
Travellers must be made more aware, and refuse to support businesses violating laws protecting wildlife, or abusing animals for entertainment.
In Asian culture, elephants have played a significant role. They are essential to people as beasts of burden, religious icons and vehicles of war. Many cultures in Southeast Asia revere elephants, placing them in positions of respect and worship.
Yet today the Asian elephant is endangered and is being pushed towards extinction in some part due to illegal exploitation. Already there are more elephants in captivity in Thailand than there are in the wild. Soon, without genuine change, there will be none left for anyone to revere.
Dr Chris R Shepherd is regional director for TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia. Joanna Cary-Elwes is campaigns manager, Elephant Family, UK.