The point of my project is to educate people at my school, all of those reading this, but on a much wider scale, tourists. When I was on holiday in Thailand at the age of 11 I visited an elephant camp and did all of those things I’m advising you, readers, not to do. I’ve been living with this guilt ever since the age of 11 – so for 6 years now. But the thing is, I didn’t know any better, and neither do the most of you. Elephants are a keystone species and are enlisted as endangered, according to WWF. Improper treatment of elephants leads to a shorter lifespan and less breading because of the elephant’s physical state. Even though my project is specifically on Thai elephants you can still apply most of what you are reading and watching to other countries. Overall, elephants help maintain forest and savanna ecosystems for other species and are integrally tied to rich biodiversity. They are important ecosystem engineers.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Elephants are important ecosystem engineers and are integrally tied to rich biodiversity. Still, their population is steadily decreasing in Thailand because of abuse, lack of financial support to reserves and sanctuaries, especially now due to Covid-19 and the significant lack of tourists. Asian elephants help maintain forest and savanna ecosystems for other species just by walking around and imprinting footprints; they enable micro-organisms that, when filled with water, can provide a home for tadpoles and other organisms; they make pathways in densely forested habitats, which allows for the passage of other animals. As keystone species, they help maintain the biodiversity of the ecosystems they inhabit. Elephants are the largest mammals in Asia and Africa, and because of this, they play a really unique and often irreplaceable role in the ecosystem. (Elephant Nature Park) They help preserve the quality of ecosystems in forests and grasslands. Their massive scale makes it easier to establish roads into the thick woodland they travel along, providing access for other wildlife. They can spend up to 19 hours a day grazing, and when walking around an area that can span up to 324 square kilometres, they can produce about 100 kilograms of dung per day. It helps to spread seeds that germinate. As stated by the WWF, there are currently about 50,000 Asian elephants left – this makes them “endangered” (WWF). Of those, there are an estimated 3 – 4,000 elephants in Thailand and around half of this number are domesticated, with the remaining living wild in National Parks Reserves (2019). The primary long-term goals of rewilding the elephants should align with the Sustainable Development Goals to ensure a holistic approach that ensures that mahouts, elephant owners, local and communities all benefit from conserving the national elephant population in wild habitat. (Animal Epidemics Act B.E.2499 (1956)) The WWF and other NGOs have already implemented laws that illegalise poaching, put antipoaching controls in place, confiscate weapons such as snares, and educate people about the regulations. (Bangkok Post, 2014) Such laws have proved useful, but people find loopholes in them manage to avoid the issue at hand.
Thailand’s forest area decreased from 80 percent in 1957 to about less than 20 percent in 1992, primarily due to deforestation associated with improper progress. While logging was outlawed in 1989, 70% of the forested areas have already vanished and illegal logging continues, according to WWF. Shifting tribal village agriculture, dam and road building, even gas pipelines, as well as resort projects in forest reserve areas, eucalyptus and pineapple plantations. They have all contributed to the destruction. Such improper designs threaten to rob elephants of their natural habitat and feeding grounds, push them to relocate to risky areas, and lead to disputes between food-seeking elephants and plantation owners. (WFF)
PROBLEMS WE’RE FACING TODAY
Elephants confined to smaller populations as a result of habitat loss are at a higher risk of becoming wiped out due to natural disasters, disease, inbreeding, and more. Habitat depletion and fragmentation are the main threat to Asian elephants. Asia is the most populated continent on Earth, where development and economic growth have contributed to elephant-living areas being invaded. This has culminated in an average of 70% of elephants today being located outside protected areas. Human cities, plantations, industry, agriculture, mining, and linear infrastructure extension. Elephant populations have been forced into smaller patches of woodland surrounded by human colonies that also obstruct conventional migratory routes. (BBC News, 2017)
Human-elephant clashes are another major threat to elephants. There has been an uptick in encounters between elephants and humans, such as tourism, with a large majority of the elephant population remaining outside protected areas, most of which include agricultural fields and human settlements. These experiences, sometimes unpleasant, contribute to the destruction, damage, and death of crops and property. Such results can activate human beings and result in deadly effects on the elephants.
Mishandling and jobs, such as rough training, improper use of punishment force, drug abuse, lack of veterinary care, abuse of wildlife, illicit mining, money roaming the streets, etc., contribute to numerous issues with animal health and often endanger public safety:
1. Some Thai elephant handlers still believe in unnecessary brutality to restrain young calves and use a spike hammer for discipline, including close cuffs on all four legs.
2. Elephants are told to pose to amuse visitors and locals on two front legs or on a small box. Once ageing, these elephants would have bone abnormalities. Elephants are enclosed for the majority of the day in small chains while not performing. This results in long-term neurotic behaviour, which can be seen as an elephant swaying its head side by side as if it were dancing.
- Instead of only enlisting them as a rare species, place all wild elephants on the endangered species list. The relevant authorities would be allowed to prohibit the economic use of elephant pieces for such things as ivory.
- Next, prohibit all items containing elephant elements, including ivory, feathers, bone and all organs of living and deceased elephants, irrespective of the origin of the elephant and the cause of death. This is to counter false arguments both in and outside the world that sections are derived from domesticated elephants. The distinction between ivory originating from a wild elephant and domesticated ivory is difficult to make out.
- Fully redesign the registry of elephants raised in captivity from birth to death, with precise identification – microchip plus DNA recording – to avoid registration fraud, — particularly with elephant calves. The notable spike of domesticated elephants indicates that there may be a variety of domestically born wild elephant calves.
- Proclaim all remaining protected forested land and preclude any unsustainable use of forest resources. Restrict more forest-land growth. It is essential to discourage or repeal any project that will affect the environment. When conservation is at stake, the determination to avoid giving in to commercial interests, local or national, must remain.
- Educate local people regarding the protection of elephants, the topics involved and the associated laws. On former elephant feeding grounds, wild elephants are often killed by farmers searching for lucrative forest resources or former plantation farming land.
- Lastly, strengthen law authorities and forest rangers with the ability to prosecute and suppress violations affecting forest resources in conservation-related situations.
UNCOVERING THE UNETHICAL
As a tourist, how would you know which elephant sanctuaries to visit and which ones to stay away from? I certainly didn’t know this when I had my first encounter with elephants.
I wrote to 13 non-governmental organisations and only three responded. And most of the responses were along the lines of, “Yes, elephants learn how to paint as a part of our training program,” and yet they found a way to convincingly make it seem like it is okay when in reality it is not. Note, I purposely targeted organisations and sanctuaries which were rumoured to be unethical and take advantage of the loops holes within the Thai laws relating to elephants and their safety. Say, an elephant organisation doesn’t provide unethical elephant attractions it shouldn’t directly lead them to be checked off as being ethical. They should be fed and treated accordingly, kept safe from any unnatural dangers, such as poachers, and assured the conservation of a healthy and natural environment – biodiversity is important too! From the questions asked, I learned that most elephant organisations are intertwined within other such related sanctuaries and organisations. This proves to be both beneficial and detrimental: beneficial in the sense of collaboration and having more sanctuaries work together rather than compete, and detrimental because this is one of the frequently, yet sneakily used loopholes in regards to the Thai laws and regulations, as mentioned earlier. Some of the more successful organisations sometimes collaborate with smaller unethical sanctuaries and use their label and image to disguise the unethical happenings. This leads people to start questioning what really goes on.
Now you may be asking yourself, well how will I know if the sanctuary is ethical? It’s actually not that difficult. All it takes is some research prior to your planned visit which shouldn’t be too difficult considering you now know what to look out for.
A SERIES OF ANIMATED VIDEOS: TO BETTER YOUR UNDERSTANDING
As part of my raising awareness, I created the animations displayed below and then showed them to elementary and middle school students at my school to already start spreading awareness at a younger age.