Fri, Jul 28, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Laotian elephants illegally sold to Chinese zoos by dozens: filmmaker

Laos is accused of breaching CITES treaty, but a failure to implement the accord prevents any meaningful punishment

By Adam Cruise  /  The Guardian

Dozens of elephants from Laos are being illegally bought by China to be displayed in zoos and safari parks across the nation, wildlife investigator and filmmaker Karl Ammann said.

Ammann said the so-called captive elephants in Laos sell for about £23,000 (US$30,229) before being walked across the border into China by handlers or “mahouts” near the border town of Boten. They are transported to receiving facilities, which buy them from the agents for up to £230,000 per animal.

“That is a nice mark-up and makes it exactly the kind of commercial transaction which under CITES rules is not acceptable,” he said, referring to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Ammann and his crew stumbled on the illicit trade between Laos and China earlier this year, while investigating the sale of 16 Asian elephants from Laos to a safari park in Dubai. None of the elephants had the necessary permits for export. The translocation was stopped by a direct order from the new Laotian prime minister at the last moment, while an Emirates Airlines Cargo 747 was already on the tarmac in Vientiane, the nation’s capital.

“We then looked into the background of these elephants and met with several of the owners of the elephants, as well as the local agent who arranged this sale,” Ammann said.

Delving deeper, he and his investigative team discovered that the trade in live elephants from Laos mainly involved China, with almost 100 animals ending up in Chinese zoos and facilities.

Many mahouts told Ammann on camera that their elephants are captive-bred, but have been sired by a wild bull elephant. To avoid stud costs, mahouts in Laos tie captive-bred females to trees in the forest so that they can be mated with wild bulls.

Under CITES Appendix I, an elephant with a wild parent in an uncontrolled setting is not considered captive-bred and therefore may not be sold commercially.

Almost 100 Asian elephants are believed to have been sold from Laos to China over the past couple of years.

Hu Chunmei, an animal welfare advocate in China, said she has already established that six zoos — all government-owned — have a confirmed 38 elephants from Laos, with 50 more likely to be Laotian.

However, the trade in live Asian elephants contravenes international regulations. Like African elephants, Asian elephants are considered a species threatened with extinction. All international trade is prohibited by CITES unless it is not for commercial purposes, or unless the elephants originate from a CITES-approved facility of captive-bred animals.

However, Laos does not have a single CITES-approved breeding facility and Ammann says the transactions have been commercial. Some zoos have paid Chinese intermediaries up to 10 times as much as the latter paid owners in Laos.

Elephants are a popular and renumerative attraction at Chinese circuses, zoos and safari parks — they are still expected to perform in some places, although this is increasingly controversial. Conditions can be poor — some reviewers on Tripadvisor describe elephants confined in small concrete boxes. The elephants are sourced from a number of places.

In 2015, and again last year, amid a global outcry, Chinese zoos and safari parks flew in more than 60 baby African elephants taken from their families in the wild in Zimbabwe. The elephants are now at the Shanghai Wild Animal Park, the Beijing Wildlife Park and the Hangzhou Safari Park, among other venues.

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