Elephants : Killing for Cash

Saturday, September 26, 2009posted by admin 7:30 PM

THE SAGA OF ‘PANG DURIAN’: An orphaned baby elephant from Phraektakor Reserved Forest in Phetchaburi province close to Kaeng Krachan National Park

‘Pang Durian’ in Kaeng Krachan National Park

Elephants are being slaughtered in supposedly protected forests so that their young can be used to beg for money on the streets of Bangkok and other cities around the Kingdom. ‘Pang Durian’ is one of those orphaned baby elephants. But unlike other victims of this cruel trade, she has found a new family in the wild. This story is true and based on fact!

‘Pang Durian’ and two step-mothers in Kaeng krachan

A baby elephant wanders aimlessly around her mother lying dead on the ground. The confused young creature has no idea what the future holds as poachers move in to capture her. Her freedom is about to be taken away. Later her spirit will be broken and she will probably end up begging for food and money in some big town or tourist destination

The above scenario is all too common. The killing of mother elephants is perpetrated by some very unscrupulous people who then grab their young and sell them for cash. Other indigenous species like gibbon and langur are hunted down in a similar manner. The middleman and eventual buyers who create the demand for animals snatched from the wild seem to be insulated from the law. When will the killing and kidnapping stop?

Mother and baby tusker camera trapped at a mineral deposit in Kaeng Krachan

The cruelty of this illicit trade is epitomised by the remarkable but traumatic experience of ‘Pang Durian’, a female baby elephant abducted from Phraektakor Reserved Forest, just south of Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province. Her mother was killed by poachers in 1998 and the six-month-old was being kept at Ban Durian, a village just outside the park’s southern boundary. It was there, as she awaited sale on the black market, that she was given her name.

The young orphan was in very poor health. Luckily, however, Royal Forest Department (RFD) rangers in Kaeng Krachan heard about her and investigated. By the time they got to her, she was suffering from a deficiency of protein, calcium and other minerals that would normally come from mother’s milk. Her left leg had become bow shaped and deformed. The villagers hadn’t provided a nutritious, well-balanced diet, and malnutrition had set in.

Elephant family unit in Kaeng Krachan

After negotiations, ‘Pang Durian’ was traded for raw rice, other foodstuffs and construction materials. Shutat Sapphu, head of Ban Krang station in the park, took responsibility and looked after her for several months. Non-governmental organisations including the Wildlife Fund Thailand and Wild Animal Rescue Foundation took an interest in Pang Durian’s plight. After her health began to improve, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-Thailand) moved her to the well-established Elephant Hospital at Mae Yao Reserve Forest in Lampang. For the next six months, she was in good hands. And her life was about to change for the better. Reintroduction into the wild was the plan.

In 1996, during a state visit to Thailand by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip (then president of the WWF-International), Her Majesty the Queen announced her intention to initiate a reintroduction project for elephants in the Kingdom . The idea was to offer an alternative future to domesticated and traumatised elephants, to let them live out the remainder of their lives as nature had intended.

Family unit camera trapped in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Santuary

In January of 1997, the process officially began when Her Majesty released the first three female elephants ‘Pang Bualoi’, ‘Pang Boonmee’ and ‘Pang Malai’ into Doi Pha Muang Wildlife Sanctuary in Lampang. In February 1998, ‘Pang Sangwan’ and ‘Pang Khamnoi’ were let loose in the same sanctuary as, exactly a year later, were Pang Kammoon and her one-year-old male calf, Plai Song. (“Pang” and “Plai” are Thai prefixes denoting female and male elephants, respectively.)

Some 50 elephants are currently being kept in Lampang for future release and other wilderness areas are now being looked at for inclusion in the project, for which the government recently allocated a budget of 100 million baht. Support for the scheme has come from agencies including the Bureau of the Royal Household, the Thai Elephants Conservation Centre, the Forest Industry Organisation, RFD and WWF.

It was decided to release ‘Pang Durian’ along with four adult elephants (two male, two female) into Kaeng Krachan, the Kingdom’s largest national park. According to the park chief, there are about 200 wild elephants, in seven or eight different herds, living in the interior. The question is, after having become used to humans can elephants be introduced into an area where wild ones roam?

By now ‘Durian’ was more than two years old but she would still be very vulnerable to attack by tigers and leopards and susceptible to possibly recapture by humans. So two stepmothers, ‘Pang Buangern’ (Silver Lotus) and ‘Pang Buathong’ (Golden Lotus), were assigned to look after and protect her. The two males in the group bore the names ‘Plai Eak’ and ‘Plai Mangkorn’ — the latter a bull aged about 60.

Tuskless bull camera trapped on an old logging road in Kaeng Krachan

In late May 2000, the five elephants made the 900-kilometre trip from Lampang south to Phetchaburi; it took about 24 hours to cover the distance. A veterinarian named Dr Somkiat Trongwongsa along with a team of mahouts and RFD rangers working with WWF-Thailand were assigned to look after and monitor the group. One of the females had been fitted with a radio collar for satellite tracking. The group were released near the main entrance at Sam Yot (Three Peaks) Gate into Kaeng Krachan on June 1 of that year.

Sadly, ‘Plai Mangkorn’ was found dead of old age six months later, but the rest of the group continued to move in and out of the park. After the intense rains in late 2000, contact was lost for several months, but in mid-2001 the three surviving adults in the group were spotted near Sam Yot Gate. But Durian had disappeared and everyone feared the worst. Had she been taken by a tiger or lost in the thick jungle?

A tusker camera trapped by the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan

The three adults hung around the gate, refusing to go back into the park. It transpired that they had been chased away from several villages in the vicinity and were becoming a serious problem for the RFD. Eventually, almost a year after their release, it was decided that they should be sent back to Lampang.

In September 2002, while working with the RFD in Kaeng Krachan in conjunction with WWF-Thailand, I made a trip into the park to set up some infra-red camera-traps at mineral licks about 12 kilometres from Sam Yot Gate. The cameras were attached to trees on trails leading to the salt licks and left for one month.

‘Pang Durian’ camera trapped in Kaeng Krachan showing her bowed left front leg

Positive proof that she was surviving with a wild herd in the park

When the films were processed in October, low and behold, ‘Pang Durian’ was spotted passing one of the cameras at about 4 o’clock one morning, her deformed left leg clearly visible. It almost seemed as if she was saying, “Here I am!” Other elephants captured on the same roll of film around the same time meant that this remarkable little elephant was now obviously in good hands. She had come full circle and had been adopted by a herd. A magnificent testimony to the tenacity of Thai elephants and a wonderful Walt Disney ending to the whole scenario.

Actually, RFD rangers had told me earlier that they’d spotted ‘Durian’ one night near Ban Krang station. But this camera trap photo confirmed her continued existence in the park and the partial success of a difficult yet ultimately rewarding reintroduction program. According to Dr Somkiat, the Durian success story indicates that it will only be feasible to reintroduce young elephants, about five years old, into wild populations. A year later, I believe I caught her again on a camera trap but it was more difficult to identify her so I’m not sure if it was her or not. Someday I will find this photograph and re-evaluate it.

Tuskless bull in a mineral deposit in Kaeng Krachan

Countless conflicts have arisen between villagers and the real owners of the land; the creatures whose ancestors have lived there for thousands of years. Many elephants have been persecuted and killed by poisoning, gunshot wounds and electrocution (electric fences carrying an alternating current of 220 volts are used). Fireworks are set off to chase them out of mango orchards and pineapple plantations. But this tactic only frightens them temporarily; the elephants get bolder. Some have gone on the rampage tearing up villagers’ houses, RFD buildings and other facilities.

Wild elephants have also been killed or maimed by vehicles traveling along paved roads in protected areas where there are no speed limits in force. Accidents usually happen at night when the animals are difficult to spot until it is too late.

Young tusker elephant in Khao Ang Rue Nai just before

it was killed by a reckless driver on the road through the sanctuary

Above is a young tusker I camera trapped in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary in Eastern Thailand. Two weeks after, he was hit and killed more than twenty kilometers away by a truck traveling at high speed on the road through the sanctuary. The driver was also killed but his wife next to him survived. The powers-to be have now closed the road from 9pm to 5am to allow animals freedom to use the road during the night. Road kill has dropped more than 50 percent and is considered a success in wildlife conservation and the authorities should be commended for taking action. This young tusker did not die in vain

Probably the most appalling treatment meted out to pachyderms is the beatings baby elephants snatched from the wild have to endure as their captors try to make them toe the line. Most are fed totally unsuitable food that lacks the necessary protein, minerals and vitamins. Later, these youngsters will be forced to ply the hot, dusty polluted streets of Thai towns begging for food and money.

Given the lax legislation concerning domesticated elephants, and poor enforcement, the future for these unfortunate animals is bleak. Continuous calls for change are ignored. Mahouts are still bringing elephants into urban areas and tourist traps. At one time, driving around Bangkok at night and you were almost certain to spot a huge gray beast plodding along with a red light or a CD attached to its tail. Even though this has been stopped by the BMA city officials, it still goes on in other parts of Thailand where there are late-night eateries and tourists.

One can only hope that the ‘Pang Durian’ success story will wake people up to the plight of these noble beasts which has played such an important role in Thai traditions, belief systems, culture, society and politics, and which has been involved in almost every important event in the Kingdom’s history.

Once featured on the Thai flag, the elephant is still a national symbol in which we should take pride. It needs our love and compassion, plus our help and respect. Without that, the magnificent Asian elephant is doomed.



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