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BANGKOK: Smuggling the world’s largest land animal across an international border sounds like a mammoth undertaking, but activists say that does not stop traffickers supplying Asian elephants to Thai tourist attractions.
Unlike their heavily-poached African cousins — whose plight is set to dominate Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) talks in Bangkok next week — Asian elephants do not often make the headlines.
But the species is also under threat, as networks operate a rapacious trade in wild elephants to meet the demands of Thailand’s tourist industry.
Camps and zoos featuring elephants tightrope walking, playing football or performing in painting contests employ almost 4,000 domesticated elephants for the amusement of tourists.
Conservation activists accuse the industry of using illicitly-acquired animals to supplement its legal supply, with wild elephants caught in Myanmar and sold across the border into one of around 150 camps.
“Even the so-called rescue charities are trying to buy elephants,” said John Roberts of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation.
Domestic elephants in Thailand — where the pachyderm is a national symbol — have been employed en masse in the tourist trade since they found themselves unemployed in 1989 when logging was banned.
Just 2,000 of the animals remain in the wild.
Prices have exploded with elephants now commanding between 500,000 and two million baht ($17,000 to $67,000) per baby, estimates suggest.
The number of baby elephants “coming into the system” is far higher than would be possible “from actual breeding”, said Roberts, whose group decided to stop buying elephants seven years ago and now has 26 residents.
Between 50 and 100 wild baby or young female elephants are sold from Myanmar each year, according to estimates by British charity Elephant Family.
Demand is also hitting populations in Thailand’s other neighbour Laos.