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Protecting Elephants in Thailand?

Conservationists and mahouts greeted Thai Elephant Day with expressions of frustration that the government is making no serious attempt to keep these iconic animals safe in the jungle and at shelters that care for them.

They emphasised it is necessary to remind people constantly of the importance of the elephant, or it could disappear from the wild.

Their warning came as authorities continued the hunt for poachers who killed a wild elephant cow in a border forest in Phetchaburi province last week, and are believed to be smuggling her calf out of the forest for sale to a dealer.

Thailand has around 3,000 domesticated elephants and an estimated 3,000 wild elephants, according to the Elephant Conservation Centre under the Forestry Industry Organisation and the Asian Elephant Foundation of Thailand. In 1850 it was estimated the kingdom was home to 100,000 elephants.

Saving wild elephants is a main focus of the conservation movement.

Forty-eight elephants parade through Surin city on Wednesday to celebrate the Thai Elephant Day. (Photo by Nopparat Kingkaew)

Surapol Duangkhae of Friends of the Asian Elephants, a non-profit organisation, is pessimistic about the future of elephants.

He said it  is clearly not an important issue for this or previous governments.

Wild elephants are under the supervision of the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry and the Interior Ministry registers tame, or domestic, elephants.

''If the problem continues to be ignored, there will eventually be no elephants in the forests anymore,'' Mr Surapol warned in an interview with FM100.5 news station on Wednesday.

Wild elephants were targeted by hunters who sell the tusks from  males to ivory traders and the calves to zoos or private camps in Thailand and  other countries.

The trade is lucrative, he said. A baby elephant sells for up to seven figures [1,000,000 baht], he said.

Many took elephants straight out of the jungle and forced them to roam the streets, extracting cash from people who buy the food they sell to feed them.

''Elephants are in strong demand,'' he said. Poaching of wild elephants began in ernest about two decades ago and there was no sign when this would end.

"Foreign tourists are eager to see elephants and that drives the demand for elephants,'' he said.

Nirut Sala-ngam, a mahout at an elephant shelter in Satuk district of Buri Ram, said he was angry at the poachers who killed a female elephant at Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi recently. He called for more action by the government to get elephants off the streets.

The government should give more financial support for the care of elephants, and mahouts who look after them, at the various elephant shelters, he said.

Mr Nirut said that as a mahout he received 8,000 bath a month from the shelter. This was not enough to cover the cost of living and feed his 22-year-old charge Kam Lai, who has been with him for more than a decade.

The hunt continues for the poachers who killed the cow elephant found dead in Kaeng Krachan on Friday by park officials, but they remain at large.

Police have blocked all roads out of the park and nearby forests in Ratchaburi and Prachuap Khiri Khan. They believe the female had a calf and the poachers are still trying to deliver it to a customer.

Ekthana Senanon, chief of the Internal Security Operations Command in Ratchaburi, said on Wednesday that military rangers and border patrol police were keeping an eye on all routes to Myanmar in the province, hoping to prevent them from leaving Thailand.

Col Ekthana said the hunters could stay in the jungle instead, and wait it out.

The female elephant, aged between 7 and 10 years, was killed by high velocity bullets, probably fired from AKs  or M16 rifles.

He said the investigation centres on three groups of people.

Mr Surapol, of Friends of Asian Elephants, said the effort to save wild elephants should go beyond simply enforcing the law. Campaigns were needed to raise public awareness about not buying food for animals roaming city streets should be launched.

"This has become a social problem,'' he added.




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