Nothing more respectful than an elephant on a tightrope

Although a slightly controversial angle, consider this for irony. In the CITES conference centre are posters offering delegates some free day trips on Saturday. One of these is to the Samutprakan Crocodile Zoo and Farm, the other is the Khao Kheow Open Zoo. What’s wrong with that? Well…..let’s start with Samutprakan Crocodile Zoo and Farm.

One thing that concerns us as a charity is the exploitation of wildlife in ‘shows’ and performances, or as photo-props. The CITES poster shows a staff member putting his head in a crocodile’s mouth, it also highlights the ‘daily shows featuring crocodiles wrestled bare-handed’. While this is, of course, a ‘farm’, with the crocs being sold for meat, skin etc, there will still be big welfare concerns about how they are treated, and do we really need to send CITES delegates to a place that sells stuffed baby crocodiles on motorbikes as ‘tasteful’ ornament souvenirs?

On Sunday the Thai PM said ‘that no-one respects elephants more than the Thai people’. Really? Well delegates will be able to see this respect on their visit at one of the ‘hourly elephant shows’ the poster advertises with pride. For a start, these shows probably involve the eles dancing, performing and so on. If this is respect, then the fact they do eight shows a day is a fundamental welfare issue.

While we’re on the respect thing, Thailand has a well-known illegal trade in elephants from across the border in Myanmar, as well as domestically, and numerous undercover videos (available on YouTube for example) show the brutal methods used to ‘break’ the elephants – that is to train them to do anything unnatural – in this case riding scooters or standing on front legs (anatomically very unnatural and damaging for elephants).

Perhaps the event organiser doesn’t know of TripAdvisor. If they did, they should read this: http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g293916-d455812-r84997740-Samutprakan_Crocodile_Farm_and_Zoo-Bangkok.html

People are appalled and the pictures make for interesting viewing – crocodile cruelty, crocs on the menu, elephant abuse (performances), chained up tigers for photos, visitor feeding (nutritional issues/overeating issues) etc. Cage sizes for the tiger and bear, among others, also seem to fall far short of acceptable standards I believe.

The other poster advertises Khao Kheow Open Zoo – reports are better for this but to emphasise the government’s respect of elephants, the poster mentions that “…elephant shows display the dexterity of elephants as they walk tightropes, ride skateboards and dance.” Nothing more respectful than a smuggled elephant riding a skateboard. It is estimated that there are 4000 domesticated elephants in use for tourist attractions in Thailand.

However, don’t worry that not all delegates may find time to view this respect first hand – upstairs with the NGO stand is a stall selling crocodile handbags and full crocodile skins, one selling incubators with photos of crocodiles and exotic bird species, and one boasting of the export of rays for the exotic marine pet trade. If you want to see the quality, just look in the tank full of live rays on the stand.

So, to summarise – delegates at a UN conference dedicated to protecting wild animals, being invited to government approved venues where animals are kept in small cages, forced to perform, and exempt from legal protection (Thailand has no animal welfare laws for wildlife). Ironic?

It’s also worth noting that this is the second time Thailand has hosted CITES – the first in 2004. Thailand, unfortunately, has a huge number of problems when it comes to animal welfare (note the protest outside the centre yesterday); also the ‘cultural’ differences which perhaps lead to the Thai PM saying they respect elephants but then make them walk on tightropes are also something worth looking at. So overall, the irony of holding CITES here is very strong – we’d like to think that the country will take lessons from CITES and improve conditions – but that didn’t happen last time.

In the evening Care for the Wild, as part of SSN, were proud to be a joint host of the SSN Party, including the Bavin Awards for Wildlife Protection – recognising individuals who have made a large contribution to wildlife protection, including remembering those that have lost their lives on the front line battle against poachers. It also showed just how much value and importance all of us as part of the Species Survival Network add and hold here, as CITES Chairman John Scanlon joined Will Travers (SSN Chair and Chief Executive of Born Free) to present the awards. The event was well attended by delegates, other NGOs and various stakeholders.