Although I left my heart in Africa last year a part of it now resides in Thailand, a country I’ve never been to, as I follow the day-to-day progression of events at two internationally respected wildlife sanctuaries. The Elephant Nature Park (ENP), and Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT), have been repeatedly raided by armed government officials from the Department of National Parks (DNP) in what appears to be retaliatory actions for statements made by ENP and WFFT decrying the illegal wildlife trade in Thailand, and the Thai government’s suspected complicity.
The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.
It began on February 8, when ENP founder Sangduen Chailert, known as Lek, was asked to produce proof of ownership for the elephants at her sanctuary after an anonymous phone call claimed she was sheltering over 70 illegal, wild elephants. Lek was able to produce the documentation for the actual 30-plus elephants at her sanctuary, most of them elderly and disabled from spending their lives in the logging and tourism industries. Approximately 100 officials vacated the premises after reviewing her documentation, having disrupted the park for a full day with their presence.
A few days later, on February 13, approximately 60 armed officials arrived at WFFT, based on complaints that they had undocumented wildlife on the premises. Founder Edwin Wiek and his wife Jansaeng Sangnanork, who is also the president of WFFT, were given just three hours to produce paperwork to prove legal ownership of the 450 animals at their sanctuary. Despite their best efforts they couldn’t produce every document requested in the time they were allotted and Jansaeng Sangnanork was subsequently arrested for the illegal possession of protected animals (she was released on bail several hours later). The DNP vowed to confiscate the 103 animals they did not see the paperwork on. WFFT maintains they do have the paperwork, but that officials have refused to acknowledge it.
On February 21, after several days of raids by officials to confiscate the animals at WFFT, the 103rd animal was seized from the property. WFFT posted these words on their Facebook page: “Department of National Parks animal confiscations are now over. They have cruelly and inhumanely taken 103 animals away from their home. The DNP applauded their efforts after catching the final gibbon, cheering themselves and telling foreign WFFT staff and volunteers to go back to their own country.”
The seizures of the animals was traumatic. Wiek, along with many staff and volunteers, claim that the animals have been handled improperly, carelessly, and even cruelly by officials who are supposed to be experienced animal handlers. Some animals have been injured in the process. WFFT have not been told where the animals have been taken, what conditions they are living in, and when or if they will ever be returned.
So why are these two particular sanctuaries being targeted? These facilities have excellent reputations for caring for animals that have been abused, over-worked, and injured in a country where animals play a large role in the tourism industry, often at the expense of the animals’ health and well-being. It is thought that it’s because Edwin Wiek and Sangduen Chailert have both spoken out publicly against wildlife poaching and illegal trade where government officials are suspected of being involved, or at least of being complicit, and most believe the raids at WFFT and ENP are retaliation for Wiek and Chailert voicing their concerns and promoting a call to action.
The specific events that may have sparked the retaliation by the government are believed to be the recent elephant killings at Kaeng Krachan National Park and Kui Buri National Park, where six endangered, wild elephants were found dead in a three-week period. Wiek claims in an opinion piece for The Nation that the elephants were likely killed as part of an illegal baby elephant trade for the tourism industry. Elephant mothers and other herd members are very protective of their young, so sometimes several elephants will be killed in order to abduct one young calf. As elephants are known to spend time grieving for their dead, a scared and confused calf will oftentimes stay with the bodies of its deceased family members, and the poachers will then capture the infant. The calf is then taken to a “safe house,” where it is beaten and broken down in a process known as phajaan, and then paired with a legally-owned adult female elephant posing as its legitimate mother. The supposed mother and calf are then transported to a facility that is interested in purchasing the captured elephant.
An elephant does not need to be officially registered with the authorities until it is nine years old, so it is relatively easy to claim a young elephant as an unrelated female’s infant. It is a gaping loophole in the system, and Wiek has made the claim that over half the elephants in the tourist industry are illegally captured and has called for DNA testing of elephants to prove if these young calves are indeed related to the mothers as claimed.
There has been criticism of Wiek’s outspoken manner in a country where speaking your mind, especially against the government, is not always welcome. Wiek does not deny this, and in fact his Twitter account says: “Warning! I am outspoken and opinionated.” But in a press conference that Wiek and Chailert held on February 21, Wiek concluded it by asking that the government not hold the animals responsible for any words he has spoken. The DNP has since threatened to sue Wiek for alleged defamatory remarks; charges Wiek denies.
Similarly, Chailert made a request to government officials, who came to her park for a third time on February 28, to arrest her if they felt they needed to do something until this is resolved, but to not remove the elephants from their home. Many of the injured and disabled elephants at her center require special care and could not withstand the trauma of being moved.
There is some confusion as to why officials returned to ENP after they had signed off and agreed that there were no illegal, wild elephants in her park. However, it appears there are eight elephants for which Chailert has copies of the official documentation, but not the original paperwork, and officials are now demanding the original documents. They are also now asking to see documentation regarding land ownership. Chailert has agreed to provide everything the officials have asked of her, only requesting that she be allowed a reasonable amount of time to locate the original paperwork from the original owners. Chailert has also questioned why the government is not checking other elephant camps, where she says local officials have claimed that at least half of the 248 elephants at 16 area parks are unregistered. Chailert has asked why the DNP are not checking these other parks and applying the same standards to everyone, and this is where the situation at ENP currently stands.
Back at WFFT, on February 27 three animals were returned to the center as they were not protected species and therefore did not require permits to be at the rescue center. At the same time, WFFT filed documents with police investigators for the return of all the confiscated animals, but there has been no response. A few weeks later, on March 20, WFFT issued a press release stating the shocking news that two confiscated gibbons – who were born at the center and were living in a semi-wild environment with no human contact – died under the DNP’s care, along with an elephant from the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC). Wiek said in the press release, “We at WFFT again ask for an urgent return of the animals to the wildlife rescue center before more are killed at the hands of the DNP. We, again, state that we have all documents for the animals in order and have on a very frequent basis over the last years updated the authorities about the amount of rescued wildlife at the center.”
In response to an outpouring of support through letters sent to Thai embassies worldwide, and to increasing media attention, the DNP issued an official statement to Thai embassies detailing their charges against WFFT. A detailed response to the allegations has been issued by WFFT denying all charges. To date, they are still waiting to receive a direct response from the DNP regarding their request for the return of the confiscated animals.
It’s easy to feel helpless in a situation like this, but there are ways we can all show our support no matter where in the world we live. The simplest and quickest is to immediately sign this petition for WFFT, this petition for ENP, and this letter to the Thai Embassy in Washington, D.C. , on behalf of both organizations. If you have a little more time, the WFFT Resource Center, created by a past volunteer, has a letter template you can use as-is, or edit as desired, along with contact information for news sources, embassies, governments, and wildlife organizations around the world. It is imperative that these organizations understand how important this is to people on a global level. This story has received international attention, but it has yet to be taken up by a large news organization that has the ability and the initiative to do some true investigative reporting.
Whether or not this situation has a happy ending, there’s one more important thing we can all do. If you travel to Thailand, do some careful research about where you go to have animal encounters. Sanctuaries like ENP and WFFT are respected facilities that you can visit either as a volunteer or as a visitor. However, there are also many elephant camps, and other popular destinations like Tiger Temple, who have been investigated for reports of animal abuse and involvement with the illegal wildlife trade, and who appear to be more interested in the almighty tourist dollar than with the welfare of the animals in their care. (More information about the controversy surrounding Tiger Temple can be found here, here, and here.) As a tourist it’s often hard to know what places are reputable or not, despite (or because of) their popularity, but there are resources available. The Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation (EARS) is a great resource for promoting and educating people about responsible elephant tourism in Thailand. As EARS website states: “Elephants do not perform because they are talented, they endure years of abusive training and a life in chains for public entertainment.” EARS also suggests that people boycott circuses and any other acts where animals perform anywhere on the globe, as there is documented evidence of cruel and inhumane training techniques and living conditions, even here in the U.S.
We are at a crucial point in this story. While these raids are taking place in Thailand, this is not just a Thai problem. It is a global issue. Humans are causing the decline of animal species the world over; for monetary gain, for ego, and for space on an already over-burdened planet. Animals are suffering a life of abuse in the name of entertainment and profit. If justice can be brought to the animals in this story, and to legitimate rescue centers in Thailand, it can serve as a model for governments and NGOs worldwide.
The world is watching.
To keep up with the latest developments in this story, “like” Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand and Elephant Nature Park on Facebook and follow them on Twitter @EdwinWiek and @ElephantNatureP. They are doing a great job of keeping their followers up-to-date on events as they happen.