This article was published on the National Tigers for Tigers Coalition Blog on August 13, 2014
The Tiger and Elephant Days of Summer
By Steven Stone (Guest Blogger)
July 29, 2014 was International Tiger Day. It has been held annually since 2011 and is intended bring awareness to the world that there are less than 3,200 tigers left in the wild and they are heading rapidly toward extinction. International Tiger Day received some media attention, and while I don’t know how many people paid attention to it, I don’t think it was a large number. August 12, 2014 was World Elephant Day, which started in 2012 in Thailand, but has since been observed throughout the world largely to focus attention on the African Elephant Crisis-the killing of tens of thousands of elephants for their tusks, a number so large that it threatens the survival of the species.
Wildlife Trafficking, the illegal trade of wildlife or “wildlife products” is big business: $19 billion to $40 billion annually. It is now generally accepted as fact that some of these funds go to finance terrorist activities. A kilogram of elephant ivory can sell for as much as $2,200 on the black market in China; a kilo of rhino horn: $66,000. A single tiger can be worth $50,000. Tiger bones, whiskers, skins and meat and every body party are prized in China and other Asian countries. A recent article in France24 reports on accusations that watching caged tigers be killed (by humans) has become a spectator sport for wealthy Chinese businessmen in southern China and accuses some government officials there of being complicit.
The problem of wildlife trafficking has been receiving more attention worldwide in the past year in part because of the African Elephant Crisis and its link to financing for terrorism. Among other things, last year, President Obama formed the Federal Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking, as part of a commitment to increase U.S. efforts to counter poaching and the illegal wildlife trade; and earlier this year HRH the Duke of Cambridge Prince William announced the launch of United for Wildlife, an initiative to fight wildlife trafficking supported by a group of major conservation organizations and celebrities.
Tigers often top the list of the most popular animal in surveys of favorite animals throughout the world. In Chinese culture the tiger is the king of the beasts. In the United States we like tigers so much that more than 50 colleges and universities have the tiger as their mascot. Other examples abound: the MLB’s Detroit Tigers, Tony the Tiger, the cereal box icon, whose picture has been seen by several generations on boxes of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes; and the popular slogan in the 1960s to “put a tiger in your tank” for gasoline (Esso, which later became Exxon).
In his July 31, 2014 article Forgotten Tigers: Have Stripes Become Unfashionable?, John Sellar, a former Chief of Enforcement for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), asks the question whether we still care about the fate of the tiger. He cites examples that suggest there is not much interest. There have been and are many initiatives, projects and organizations to help save tigers and increase their numbers. Some of them have been successful: in Nepal and India, tiger populations have actually increased, but overall the trend has been down. Perhaps one reason we don’t read much about the killing of tigers is because the numbers involved are so low -- the poaching of ten tigers does not sound that bad, but when there are only 3,000 tigers remaining in the wild, it is very bad news indeed.
No matter how much of an effort is made to protect endangered species and how effective law enforcement and customs patrols are, poaching will continue to be a threat as long as there is a demand. It may take the criminals longer and may drive up the prices on the black market, but the demand appears to be insatiable and enough consumers have the resources and are willing to use them to acquire wildlife products.
Reducing the demand for ivory, rhino horn, tiger skins, as well as so many other endangered species and products, is an essential part of the war to end wildlife trafficking. In order for consumers to stop buying, they must change their values – or have them changed. They have to learn that the true price of these products comes at a cost far greater than what they pay in currency to procure them. They not only need to know that these products come from endangered species, that the killings are cruel and have far reaching consequences – but they have to care. Until these values are core beliefs in their hearts and minds, they at least need to know that their governments take these issues seriously, have tough laws for poachers, smugglers and consumers, and those involved in any part of wildlife trafficking, and will prosecute those who break the laws and impose harsh penalties.
Even with the massive number of elephants being killed, the demand for ivory in China and other countries remains insatiable. It is a daunting task to change the values and habits of hundreds of millions of people. Public awareness campaigns can have an impact on consumer demand for wildlife products. WildAid’s campaign to reduce the demand for ivory in China, using well-known personalities such as Yao Ming, David Beckham and Prince William, among others, shows great promise of making a difference in the buying habits of the Chinese. With an estimated 70% of illegal ivory destined for China, an impact here would save the lives of countless elephants.
The National Tiger4Tigers Coalition in partnership with the National Wildlife Refuge Association is raising awareness of the plight of the tiger by targeting the more than 50 U.S. colleges and universities that have the tiger as their mascot. T4T is building on the loyalty and affinity of students, faculty and alumni for their mascot to garner support for efforts to save wild tigers from being killed. Perhaps the most important thing about T4T is that it is helping another generation become aware of the plight of the tiger, and by extension the threat facing other endangered species. This awareness includes the key message that if they want to live in a world with tigers, elephants and other wildlife, they have to get involved.
No single initiative will save tigers from extinction or stop the killing of tens of thousands of elephants. But you have to start somewhere, and try, or you might as well give up. If you give up, then it’s all over. If we lose the war to save tigers from extinction, it will be tragic; if we lose but do not do everything we can to fight it, that would be an irreparable moral failure.
Steven Stone is an attorney with the law firm Rubin, Winston, Diercks, Harris & Cooke LLP.
 The number of elephants killed each year is an estimate, based largely on ivory seizures provided by countries and which vary widely depending on the sources and the reporters. For 2012, most estimates range from 22,000 to 35,000 elephants killed. Regardless of the exact number, a lot of elephants are being killed.
 TRAFFIC website.
 Break the Link between Terrorism and Poaching, Washington Post, January 31, 2014.
 Michael Tomasky, "A World Without Elephants? Blame China" The Daily Beast, August 6, 2014; "Elephant Tusks: The New Blood Diamonds" Global Post July 18, 2013.
 Tigers at Risk of Extinction from Poaching, the Guardian, July 28, 2014.
 Why China's Elite 'are Butchering Tigers'.
 Annamiticus, July 31, 2014.
 Global Tiger Initiative, Save Wild Tigers, Panthera's Tiger Program, WildAid's tiger campaign, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Tiger Conservation Partnership, the Tiger Stamp, to name some.
 "Nepal Sees Tiger Population Go Up By 63% Since 2009" BBC News Asia, July 29, 2013.
 "Indian Tigers Make Successful Comeback" Deutsche Welle, January 29, 2014.
 Dominique Mosbergen "African Elephants May Be Extinct By 2020 Because People Keep Eating With Ivory Chopsticks" The Huffington Post, July 30, 2014.
 WildAid: Shark Fin Demand in China Down, Report Finds.
 Kate Wong "China Crushes Ivory, But Must Do More To Fight Wildlife Crime: Scientific American, January 6, 2014.
This article was posted on ANNAMITICUS on February 23, 2014.
An Associated Press article published in USA Today on March 31, 2005, reported that there were doubts about whether the heir to the throne had the “media savvy” to be an effective king: “Prince Charles revealed a degree of awkwardness with the media that seemed … to capture the essence of his failure to win British hearts.”Almost nine years later, in London last week, Prince Charles welcomed delegates from forty-one countries and economic regional organizations — and anyone else who could get an invitation –to the London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade(February 13, 2014). The London Conference might very well signal a turning point in the battle to save the elephants and rhinos and deal a severe blow to the wildlife trade. If it does, some credit should go to Prince Charles.
One might ask, and Prince Charles alluded to this in his speech at Lancaster House, how did it fall upon him to have to facilitate the convening of such a conference. Over the past several years, the number of African elephants massacred has been rising at an alarming rate – some 60,000 were killed for their ivory in 2012-2013 alone. Many governments, organizations and individuals have been working tirelessly to try to save elephants, rhinos and other wildlife, but wildlife trafficking is a $19 billion business and organized crime syndicates are involved, and poachers are often well armed. The Presidents of several African countries, recognizing that African Elephant Crisis was getting worse and knowing they could not solve this problem alone, turned to the Prince Charles for help.
In response, the Prince of Wales asked the British Government to organize a meeting last year which led to the London Conference, with the goal of bringing to together governments, international organizations and experts to agree on decisive action to be taken to stop wildlife crime generally and the ivory trade in particular.
Prince Charles and Prince William, who by all accounts are deeply committed to stopping the ivory and rhino horn trade, used their considerable star power to focus media attention on these issues and on the conference. In a video message shown at the opening of the Symposium on Wildlife Trafficking at the Zoological Society of London, which preceded and led into the Conference, both Princes appear knowledgeable about the issues surrounding the illegal wildlife trade and deeply committed to ending it.
Further emphasizing the seriousness of the Royal Commitment to the cause, it was announced at the Symposium that Prince William had created United for Wildlife, through his Royal Foundation, to raise awareness and provide information about the planet’s endangered species.
On February 11, 2014, the first day of the Symposium and only two days before the Conference, the White House announced that the United States was banning thedomestic trade of ivory, all imports of African ivory and all exports of ivory; the only exceptions being antiques at least 100 years old. Hopefully China, Thailand and other countries that allow the domestic trade of any ivory will do the same.
The London Declaration (download it here) was adopted on February 13, 2014 by the 41 parties attending the Conference, including key countries China, Kenya, Malaysia, Philippines, Tanzania, Uganda and Vietnam. It recognizes the major role that demand plays in the illegal wildlife trade and calls upon countries to focus efforts to reduce that demand. It also recognizes the role of organized crime and calls for better laws and better cooperation among law enforcement agencies. The sacrifices of rangers — on the front lines protecting wildlife and who are often forgotten — are acknowledged in the document. The Declaration also endorses the destruction of ivory stockpiles and encourages the destruction of seized wildlife products.
The London Conference was encouraging. Promises were made which if kept will reduce the demand for ivory and make it much more difficult for poachers to kill elephants. There seems to be a growing consensus that destroying ivory stockpiles sends the message that ivory belongs on elephants and is not and will never be a commodity. This is a major shift in values. Tanzania, which has not hidden its wish to sell its ivory stockpile, estimated to be worth at least $50 million, will burn it all. Chadburned its stockpile as well. Only a few months ago these actions would have seemed inconceivable.
Of course, it remains to be seen if the parties to the London Declaration will follow through on their commitments. It should also be noted that a number of countries did not attend the Conference and have not agreed to anything in the Declaration. Even so, last week in London there was a sense of guarded optimism. Perhaps things could change. People were paying attention. Governments were taking unprecedented actions. This does not change the fact that elephants in Africa are being killed at nearly 100 per day. Nothing that happened in London has changed that – yet. One thing that has happened: it is clear that elephants and rhinos and those trying to help them have some dedicated and powerful allies in the Royal Family. As he demonstrated last week, the Prince of Wales knows how to work with the media when it counts.
Steven Stone is an attorney with Rubin Winston Diercks Harris & Cooke LLP Washington DC who advises foundations on elephant conservation and the ivory trade. He tweets about these and related topics on Twitter, under the username@ElephantDude.
Bangkok, March 27, 2013
As the two-week CITES CoP16 (the 16th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) was winding up in Bangkok on March 14, tired delegates and NGO representatives headed back to their hotels, anxious to return home. At the same time, 89 elephants, among them 33 pregnant females and 13 calves were being slaughtered in Chad, reportedly by a group of Sudanese poachers. As with tens of thousand of elephants in the past two years alone, their ivory tusks were their death warrants.
Extensive media attention to the African Elephant Crisis before and during the CoP gave the impression that the elephants’ plight was the main topic in Bangkok. There was a call by a number of leading NGOs for a ban on the trade of all ivory and it seemed like the obvious solution. Yet, I was confused. Asian and African elephants were already listed on CITES Appendix I, so the international trade in elephants (including their tusks and other body parts) was already prohibited. What more could CITES do?
TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, presented a report entitled “Elephants in the Dust” available online, which states that at least 17,000 African elephants were killed in 2011. It made the case for a causal link between demand for ivory and the killing of elephants and confirmed that organized crime syndicates play a key role in elephant poachings and the ivory trade. The report named eight countries, China, Thailand (“demand states”), the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, (“transit states”) Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania (“range states”) as the major culprits in the crisis.
Moving on to other items on the Elephant Agenda, a proposal to require DNA testing for ivory seizures of 500 kilos or greater was adopted, as were amendments to an existing directive addressing the process for range states to request approval for one-off sales of ivory from state-owned stockpiles at future CoPs. The eight countries named in the TRAFFIC report were directed to submit national ivory action plans, detailing how they planned to curtail their roles in the ivory trade.
Requiring ivory action plans seemed liked a potentially major step in the right direction. Still, I could not help but wonder who would decide if the plans were any good? What would happen if a country were to fail to comply with its plan? In spite of these questions, I was encouraged that eight countries, singled out as they were, appeared to have accepted responsibility in the crisis facing African Elephants and pledged to take action to help stop the massacre from continuing.
Following the formal closing of the CoP on Thursday, March 14, 2013, the Standing Committee of CITES, in a meeting open to observers, reviewed a document prepared by the Secretariat entitled “National Ivory Actions Plans. ” Only two pages, it proposed that the Standing Committee adopt several recommendations to provide some structure for the plans. The United States proposed amending the recommendations to provide for the possibility of some unspecified “action” to be “considered” in the event a country did not submit a plan or failed to implement it. In the course of heated debate over the proposed amendments, China voiced its objection to being blamed for the killing of elephants, saying that it was the responsibility of the African countries to protect their elephants from poachers. The range states complained that without additional funding they would have a difficult time implementing their plans. Malaysia questioned why it should have to have an ivory action plan at all, since it just happened to be located in a place that smugglers found convenient for moving ivory shipments. Seemingly surprised and overwhelmed by the debate, the Standing Committee adopted it as presented without the U.S. amendments.
I was disappointed. It had seemed as though there had been some progress, and yet the countries at the heart of the problem were acting defensive. This was consistent with my conversations with some members of some of the delegations, but I considered those to be personal opinions and certainly not official positions. Under these circumstances, where after two weeks of meetings and enormous media attention the eight countries were still expressing these views, would the ivory action plans work, and if so, how long would they take to work? Had anything really happened in Bangkok that would help save elephants?
Pondering these questions and others, I thought about the 89 elephants killed in Chad. Trying to put aside the horror of the slaughter, it struck me that while expectations were great, CITES does not hold the key to stopping the African Elephant Crisis. It is a convention that regulates trade, and in doing so it has saved thousands of species from extinction. Elephants were already endangered before the current ivory crisis, which has doubled since 2007 and tripled since 1998 (when measured by ivory seizures). The international trade of ivory is in the same league as illegal drugs, arms, and human trafficking. Can CITES really be expected to put an end to something so profitable to organized criminal syndicates and those who collaborate with them?
The CoP took some action, and National Ivory Action Plans may be a step in the right direction. Better national laws, national and international law enforcement and cooperation, public pressure and diplomatic efforts will help, but will not end the demand for ivory. Military action should be taken where feasible -- and reportedly will be taken in response to the Chad massacre. As long as demand continues, no elephant with a tusk is safe. The only way to win the war to save elephants – and it is very much a war -- is to convince the people who desire ivory, and the governments who enable the ivory trade, that the lives of elephants are worth much more than ivory. Every effort must be made to do this, and we must hope it can be done before there are no more elephants left to save.
This week the Standing Committee of CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife and Flora) meets in Geneva. Among other things, the Standing Committee will consider adopting recommendations and directives to address the illegal trade of ivory and poaching of elephants.
Almost every day I read(1) about elephants being killed throughout Africa and Asia, not only, but primarily, for their ivory tusks. Poaching is perhaps the most pressing, but not the only threat to the survival of elephants as a species, and there is “mounting evidence” that ivory is now the primary reason elephants are poached in Africa. (2)
How bad does this look for the survival of elephants as a species? According to CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife and Flora), between 2002 and 2006, 4 out of every 10 dead elephants were killed by poachers. (3) Appalling! Even more shocking and almost incomprehensible: CITES now says that 8 of every 10 dead elephants are killed by poachers.(3) Clearly this is a crisis situation that demands immediate action.
Africa’s elephant population is down from approximately 1.2 millions in the 1970s, to less than half that number. Numbers are approximate, and vary dramatically depending on who is providing them, but there is no disagreement that the threat is dramatic and real. Asian elephants have far less habitat and face a myriad of threats to their survival, poaching for ivory among them.
As someone who cares deeply about the survival of endangered species, elephants have a special place in my heart. Aside from all of their important contributions to the ecosystem, suffice it to say that I see a world without elephants as a very sad – and very real - possibility
Given the upcoming meeting of the Standing Committee, I have thought more about this problem, which has led me to ask: What is so special about ivory, that drives humans to kill our largest land mammal, on two continents, in order to satisfy what seems to be a growing and insatiable demand for it?
There are many reasons, experts say, but ivory is used in China, as well as other countries, for jewelry, carvings, other art, as well as for billiard balls and ivory piano keys. Ivory is a traditional symbol of wealth and status. As those who have these values have become wealthier, there has been a desire to display their status.
China, with approval from CITES, allows “old ivory” (ivory sold before the international trade of it was banned by CITES in 1989) to be sold by manufacturers accredited by the China’s State Forestry Administration. If the sale of anything other than old ivory is illegal, how is so much of it acquired? Most of it sold on the black market.(4) A lot of it is sold by registered manufacturers exploiting and circumventing the registration system.
According to a report and survey by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in 2006(4), and other news reports, problems with the legal sale of ivory in China include: “accredited retailers with illegal carving factory, registered manufacturers selling ivory overseas, illegal manufacturer registered as legal one, certificates used only for government inspection, unregistered ivory products made of registered raw ivory, registered manufacturers selling ivory products to illegal dealers.”
"Investigations reveal that antique market, arts & crafts store, gift shop at 4/5-star hotel, crafts trade fair and auction are the main illegal ivory trading channels. Similarly, illegal ivory trade was also found at on line auction, e-commerce websites and collection sites. The illegal ivory products in the black market are traded in a variety of ways, from door to door sales to filling orders by customers, some of whom are from overseas."
The IFAW report and survey, though six years old, is comprehensive about the question of “why ivory” and answers many questions. I hope it will be updated. This report is depressing, but also has a number of recommendations, which if implemented might help. I hope that educating not only the Chinese dealers on the difference between legal and illegal ivory will make a difference, but more importantly, that educating the Chinese public will convince them that the price in elephants’ lives is too high a price to pay for the pleasure or status of owning ivory.
How high a price? According to a September 20, 2011 piece in the Wall Street Journal (5), ivory pieces in China have been going for as much as US$7,000/kg, up from US$157/kg in 2008 according to one source. Other sources put the numbers lower, but it really doesn’t matter. The point is that serious money is being made through the illegal ivory trade, that is has its own currency, and that the increase in demand and black market price in just over three years is startling and not good news for elephants.
CITES banned the sale of ivory in 1989. It seems that this ban resulted in some success. In 2008, CITES approved a “one-off” sale of over 100 tons of ivory (either seized from poachers or taken from elephants that had died) from 4 African countries to China and Japan. There were a number of good reasons for the legal sale of ivory, as well as reasons why it is not such a good idea. (6) It was a controversial move, and undoubtedly well-intentioned. Whether it contributed to the increase in the demand for ivory or not, it didn’t help as demand has increased dramatically since then.
Based on articles I have been seeing, especially recently, on seizures of ivory shipments from Bangkok and Dubai, among others places, there are many efforts underway to stop poachers to combat the problem. It seems that these efforts are having some degree of success. In addition, taking the opposite approach from the one-off sale idea, Gabon recently burned its stockpile of ivory (collected from seized ivory and tusks from dead elephants).
Many competent and well intentioned non-profit organizations, as well as African and Asian nations, are working on protecting elephants from poaching, and the U.S. Government is helping some of these efforts. It is a member of INTERPOL and a signatory to CITES and has investigators and law enforcement officials working on the problem at USFWS. In the U.S., CITES is implemented through the Endangered Species Act of 1973. In May 2012, Senator John Kerry held a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May on the ivory trade, and the Department of State and Congress, I have been told, are actively working on the issue on the diplomatic side.
Last week the focus on illegal ivory sale turned to New York City. New York? How can that be? The Manhattan District Attorney brought a case against two Manhattan jewelers who were selling elephant ivory in plain sight. One forfeited more than US$2,000,000 in ivory items and will pay a fine of US$45,000; the other forfeited US$120,000 in ivory and will pay a fine of US$10,000 in fines. The fines will be donated to the Wildlife Conservation Society. It’s fortunate that these jewelers were caught, however they were apprehended not by a sting operation but as a result of an observation of an off-duty U.S. Fish & Wildlife officer. In any case, I doubt the fines are sufficient to deter ivory sales in the U.S. or elsewhere.
The World Wildlife Fund, which together with IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) operates TRAFFIC, the largest wildlife trafficking monitoring organization, went so far as to criticize U.S. efforts to crack down on ivory sales, saying its effort lag behind those of, well even China. WWF did not criticize the work of USFWS, but made it clear that it does not believe USFWS has resources to combat in a major way the ivory trade in the U.S.(7) If the U.S. can’t fight the poachers in the U.S., which makes up only a small part of the ivory demand, what can we expect from other countries?
What is to be done about this problem? What can all of these well-intentioned (and in some cases, well-funded) organizations, African and Asian governments, the U.S. government and the United Nations do to stop elephants from being slaughtered in the face of an insatiable demand for ivory and a criminal network for distribution?
I am not an expert and do not presume to know more about the illegal wildlife trade than those who have been fighting this problem for years. But I will go so far as to make a few suggestions:
1. CITES: Do not approve the sale of any more ivory stockpiles.
2. African nations: Follow the lead of Gabon and burn your ivory stockpiles. I know you need money, but there must be better ways to raise funds.
3. NGOs, US Government, UN, China: Focus more attention and devote more resources on the demand for ivory where it would have the biggest impact: China. It is 2012 and not that difficult to disseminate information in China if the government is willing to do so! Educate the Chinese population so that the public is painfully aware that ivory comes from elephant tusks, and that elephants are killed for their tusks. I don’t believe the Chinese would enjoy ivory as much as they do now if they were to see pictures of dead elephants on billboards with messages telling them not to buy ivory (just an example).
4. Law enforcement: Nations must strengthen the laws against poaching and illegal trafficking of wildlife and ivory and ENFORCE them. There was an impressive seizure of ivory at Bangkok's main airport just last week, which resulted from cooperation among law enforcement agencies. Much more needs to be done! (I saw ivory items for sale in plain sight in Bangkok as recently as November 2011.) But here in the U.S. we must be careful not to point fingers: A $45,000 fine to one jeweler for selling illegal ivory in New York City is a step in the right direction, but cannot be viewed as a major deterrent.
5. People: Don’t buy ivory! Whether it's jewelry or art, if you see it on eBay or other auction sites (eBay has restricted but not completely banned the purchase and sale of ivory from its site (8)) or elsewhere, don't buy it. It’s not harmless! If you’re on vacation and see a beautiful ivory carving or necklace, don’t buy it - call the police! It is almost certainly illegal.
There is a lot of work to be done, and the stakes are high.
The views expressed here are entirely my own and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person or organization.
(1) A project of Save the Elephants, the Elephant News Service run by Melissa Groo disseminates news reports about Asian and African elephants through a free list serve almost daily.
(2) News Release, Experts Report Highest Elephant Poaching and Ivory Smuggling Rates in a Decade TRAFFIC Website (June 21, 2012).
(3) Press Release, Da Vance Announces Guilty Pleas of Dealers for Selling Illegal Elephant Ivory (July 12, 2012).
(4) International Fund for Animal Welfare, Ivory Market in China - China Ivory Trade Survey Report (June 2006).
(5) Alexandra Wexler, China Demand Revives Ivory Trade Wall Street Journal (September 20, 2011).
(6) Richard Ruggiero, A Bellwether Species, Wildlife Society News (June 8, 2012).
(7) Miguel Llanos, US Tough on Saving Elephants from Slaughter? Hardly, say WWF NBC News Website (July 17, 2012).
(8) eBay's Policy on the Sale of Wildlife and Animal Products (posted on eBay’s website as of July 23, 2012).
A road in Baan Tha Klang.
_ From November 21 - 27, 2011, I was in Baan Tha Klang (or Ban Ta Klang), a village in Surin Province, Thailand, as a volunteer with the The Surin Project. As most of my volunteer efforts in the conservation field have involved serving on boards, participating in meetings, and advising non-profit and other organizations on policy, legal and organizational issues, I have not done much work in the field. (Possibly I have not done any prior to this trip.) It was a fascinating experience, both uplifting and heartbreaking. The week spent volunteering with the Surin Project gave me a sense of satisfaction that I was helping where help was needed desperately. It also gave me a lot to think about, challenging some of my assumptions about the care and training of animals (not just elephants), the variety of approaches to conservation and the importance of respecting local culture and customs when trying to bring about change, no matter how noble the cause.
If you don't want to read all of this, you can check out the photos and here's my conclusion: The Surin Project is making a difference, far beyond helping the elephants that are part of its program. It is fortunate to have a brilliant and energetic Program Director, who is fluent in Thai and passionate about the Project's mission. The Project's biggest strength is its approach of being part of and working with the community. By doing so it is helping not only the elephants that are in the Project, but demonstrating that providing a better life for the elephants is a winning proposition for the elephants, their owners and mahouts, and the community.
Surin Project elephants swimming.
I have had a life-long fascination with elephants. They are the largest land mammals, are vegetarians and are highly intelligent. New revelations, such as their ability to communicate over long distances through vibrations, make them all the more interesting. Sadly, elephants face the real possibility of extinction (Asian Elephants have been listed as "endangered" on the IUCN Red List since 1986, with a decreasing population). Elephants in both Africa and Asia face threats to their survival on many fronts. In the wild they are or may be victims of poachers and the illegal wildlife trade as well as human-elephant conflict.
An adult male with both front legs chained.
_Captive elephants are subject to abuse, inhumane treatment and neglect whether in zoos or circuses, as working animals, or as unemployed burdens on owners who expect an income from their elephants. (I am not suggesting that all elephants in any or all of these situations are abused or neglected.) While there are any number of successful elephant rescue camps, some of which I have supported for many years, I wanted to visit a place where captive elephants really needed help. Surin was that place.
Entrance to the Government Study Center.
In Baan Tha Klang, a small village in Surin Province, located 300 miles (480 kilometers) northeast of Bangkok. approximately 200 privately owned elephants live in a government-owned area known as the Government Study Center. This is in some ways a village that may not have changed much in a very long time; cars, satellite TV, cell phones and electricity being possibly the only exceptions, Walking through the village, one can see elephants chained in front of the simple homes of the locals who own and/or care for the elephants (mahouts). The houses are above ground and accessed by stairs that are more like ladders. There is no hot water; bathrooms are outside and do not have modern plumbing. Many of the mahouts are not able to earn a living from their elephants, so they work elsewhere or do not work. The result is that most of the elephants in the village spend the majority of their lives chained, often without any cover from the hot sun or rain, and in many instances with both front legs secured. The chains are short and I saw more than one elephant struggling to lie down.
It is a paradox that, despite the chains, elephants are are very much revered, at least in principle, throughout Thailand, and are regarded as special enough in Surin that there is located there what may be the world's only elephant cemetery. Dan Koehl in his blog provides an interesting discussion of the cemetery and its history. http://dankoehl.blogspot.com/2011_11_01_archive.html
Elephants off the chains enjoying the day.
A program of the Elephant Nature Foundation, which operates the popular Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, the Surin Project was established in 2008 but has only had a full time project director for the past 18 months (Summer 2010). The Project faces unique challenges in its mission to help improve the lives of the elephants in Baan Tha Klang.
Mahouts on a walk with the elephants.
The Elephant Study Center pays stipends to about 200 mahouts so that they will live in the village with their elephants rather than leave the province and in most cases beg on the streets of Bangkok, which can provide a lucrative income from well meaning but naive tourists. I found this to be an interesting anomaly: On the one hand the government wants the elephants to stay in Surin Province. On the other hand, there are no standards of care for elephants and they are subject to the same laws that govern livestock.
The Surin Project is located within the Government Study Center, so it is not an elephant camp or rescue center. The Project cannot dictate standards of care for the elephants the village. Therefore it is not uncommon to see mahouts carrying bull hooks, "tools" considered by many, in the West especially, to be a barbaric instruments used in training and disciplining elephants, and by others as necessary to maintain control over large, potentially very dangerous animals (captive elephants are not domesticated). Participation in the Project is voluntary, however while in the Project, mahouts must follow certain standards. So far, according to Alex Godfrey, the Project Director, no mahouts have left the Project and there are a number of others who wish to join. Not all those who wish to participate are able to do so, as human and financial resources are limited. This is a program that relies heavily on volunteers, and doubling or tripling the number of volunteers it would take to bring in another 15 or 20 elephants, espeically quickly, would undoubtedly bring about new challenges just as the Project is starting to show results.
In spite of these challenges, the Surin Project is succeeding in retaining mahouts and showing them that they can earn a living while giving their elephants a much better life. The Project has already attracted foreign volunteers, with an impressive number of repeat visitors, who are willing to come to the Project to work with the mahouts and enable the elephants to spend time unchained. The volunteers help the mahouts care for their elephants so the elephants get to spend time unchained and with each other in groups they have formed, and to just "be elephants". Volunteers pay what is a small amount of money for most Westerners, but which not only covers their meals and lodging costs while in the village but also provides funds for the mahouts' salaries, food for the elephants, etc. Not much is left over and rarely have I seen a non-profit organization do so much with so little.
It is heartbreaking to see elephants on chains, in the hot sun, with no activity or stimulation of any kind. I am still haunted by the memory of one elephant, whose both front legs were chained every time I saw her. As far as I could tell, and I checked on her often, she was left out in the hot sun all day long without any shelter covering, less than 100 feet away from a lake she could not reach. She swayed back and forth constantly, which is referred to as "stereotypical behavior." Quite a number of the elephants chained up engage in similar behavior while chained. I can only hope her owner will either join the Surin Project or adopt some of its standards of care to give this beautiful elephant a chance of a decent life.
Elephants on chains are a fact of life in Baan Tha Klang. To some extent it is necessary, as there are no structures available to house the elephants. I found myself thinking that an elephant who has only one leg chained and only at night was getting a pretty good deal. Welcome to Surin.
Here is a photo of a young elephant. Note that both front legs are chained, and there is little room for the elephant to move about. I do not know how long this elephants spends secured in this manner, but this photo was taken during the week during daylight.
It was not unusual to walk through the village and see elephants with both front legs chanined, even very young elephants.
The Project seems to me a hybrid of direct action - getting mahouts and elephants in the program so the elephants have a better life as soon as possible - and attempting to win the hearts and minds of the local population so that they will make changes on their own in the way they treat their elephants. This seems an excellent way of helping the elephants in this setting, given that they are privately owned by different individuals, living on land owned by the government, and that there is a long history and cultural differences that would not make laws or rules difficult to enforce even if they were to be enacted and adopted. Without the authority to dictate standards of care, demonstrating that the model works seems most likely to bring about change. The sad reality is that change can not come about overnight. The good news is that some elephants have already benefited, and there is good reason to hope that more will benefit either by joining the program or by changing behavior on their own as they see the positive results brought about by the Surin Project.
Project Director Alex Godfrey pointing out a field where crops will be planted for food for elephants in the Project.
Another goal of the Project is to create a sustainable environment for the elephants by acquiring more land, either by lease or purchase, on which volunteers are helping to plant bamboo, elephants grass and other food for the elephants. In this photo Project Director Alex Godfrey is showing volunteers land on which crops will be planted by volunteers.
In less than three years 12 female elephants and their mahouts have joined the Project and participate full-time, with 5 males participating part-time, and the number of volunteers has increased so its current capacity of 12 volunteers is being reached on a somewhat regular basis. At the same time, the local population can see that a new idea works, that foreign tourists are willing to come to Surin to help the mahouts take care of their elephants, to see elephants off chains and spend time with them on walks or simply watching them in a natural setting. The message is therefore being delivered that the mahouts can provide their elephants with a humane and better quality of life while at the same time earning a salary and bringing additional revenue to local businesses.
What especially appealed to me about the Surin Project is that it is respectful of the local culture despite how challenging doing so can be at times. It demonstrates an alternative way that the mahouts can earn a living and care for the elephants, without trying to force a philosophy on a society that has lived with elephants for centuries. This approach has helped create an environment that is welcoming rather than suspicious of foreign visitors. This gave me much to think about, as it is common for Westerners to have an emotional response to seeing elephants treated in a manner not consistent with their own values (I plead guilty to having had this reaction).
For more information about the Surin Project, www.surinproject.org. There are numerous articles and websites about the challenges facing wild and captive elephants in Thailand. This Wikipedia article may be of interest, but I won't vouch for its accuracy.
I would like to thank Alex Godfrey for taking the time to speak with me about the Project at length during my visit. I did not "interview" him, however; and the opinions expressed here are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Alex, the Surin Project or anyone affiliated with it.
Photos and text by Steven Stone copyright 2011.