Between 50 and 100 Asian elephant calves and young female elephants are illegally smuggled from Burma to Thailand every year and sold to tourist-driven camps, according to a UK film-maker and a leading campaigner against the abuse of elephants.
In addition, they say, many elephants die while being trafficked through the mountainous jungle, and the issue threatens the future of the species.
Joanna Cary-Elwes, the campaign manger at London-based NGO Elephant Family, said that, according to its investigation, about 40 calves have been traded across the border from Burma into Thai camps in the past six months.
Elephants in Burma are traditionally used for logging and carrying materials in the rice industry. In conflict zones, many die or become disabled after stepping on landmines.
Elephant campaigners say that, after being smuggled to Thailand, the pachyderms end up being used for trekking, in festivals, as attractions in so-called wildlife parks, and for riding at tourist destinations in Thailand.
A new film by Ecologist Film Unit (EFU) in the UK, in association with Link TV and Elephant Family, alleges that the hunting and capturing of wild elephants often involves the slaughter of mothers and other protective family members with automatic weapons. Caught calves are then often subjected to a brutal “breaking-in” process where they are tied up, confined, starved, beaten and tortured in order to “break their spirits,” said EFU.
“In Thailand, they use knifes, axes and sticks to beat them … and anything that causes the elephants pain and makes them afraid of people. So, a lot of them died,” Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, the founder of Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, was quoted as saying.
The EFU estimated that only one in three survive this inhumane “domestication” process.
The elephant campaigners also called on the Thai authorities to launch a fresh crackdown on elephant smuggling ahead of the next Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Thailand in March 2013.
As many as one million British tourists visit Thailand’s tourist camps each year, it is estimated, leading to claims that they are unwittingly fueling this devastating trade, according to an EFU report.