Can ‘Chor Chaang’ really save the elephants?

‘Chor Chaang Saving Elephants’ was an initiative started by WWF to encourage a change in Thai cultural perspective of the elephant. Thailand already has a deeply ingrained relationship with their subspecies of Asian Elephant, the Indian Elephant, which is complex to say the least. They have a symbolic status in religion and culture within the country, and are revered throughout Asia as being the ultimate symbol of strength and endurance. Sadly this is not the case, with the demand for ivory at a record high. Returning to the complex relationship, the Indian elephant is also used throughout Thailand, and indeed most of Asia, as a tourist attraction, entertainment (such as cruel circuses), and a work force for heavy lifting. Fortunately these practices are slowly declining, with main elephant tourist attractions usually centred around rehabilitation centres and sanctuaries, most of which have a volunteer program to help boost awareness about their dire situation. However, this complex relationship still flourishes in rural communities, and whilst could be viewed as beneficial to an extent, it is also having an effect on the decline in numbers. At the turn of the century there were an estimated 100,000 Asian elephants. Today there are no more than 35,000-40,000, a 60% loss in less than 3 generations. Admittedly these losses are not as severe as the African elephant, whose stats beggar belief and shall be discussed later. Asian elephants used to roam throughout most of Asia, yet now are restricted to a mere 15% of their former range. This rapid descent can be attributed to 3 major factors: habitat loss and fragmentation, human-wildlife conflict, and poaching and capture.

Asia is the most densely populated, accounting for 60% of the worlds population, some 4.3 billion people. Add that with limitations from natural geography, and we have an issue concerning land. This has meant the habitable areas for both humans and wildlife is restricted, and humans usually put themselves first. Resulting in a massive habitat loss for the vast majority of species in Asia, including the Asian elephant, which as we have seen has been devastated. The development of towns and their supporting structures (roads, dams, agriculture, etc.) which has helped the human population to grow and therefore require more space, has also had a fragmentary effect on elephant populations, as ancient migration routes are cut off, leaving them isolated, and subject to genetic degeneration eventually.

An asiatic elephant playing in a river.
The majestic Asian elephant relaxing in a river, a lovely sight to see.

One of the more surprising facts around Asian elephant death is the leading cause, human-wildlife conflict. Usually these account for small amounts of animal loss, taking away animals with a cultural stigma attached to them, such as the aye-aye, an issue which will be subject to another of these blogs. The cause-effect relationship is very obvious here, so I shan’t go into much depth. Essentially, humans settlements grow, encroach on wildlife populations, said wildlife begins to forage in plantations or in settlements themselves, they get killed for doing so. Brutal, but simple. Right? No. In some countries the government will try to compensate the farmers for any damage sustained, yet there is often a political pressure on wildlife authorities to kill any wildlife encroaching on human settlements instead of risking a conflict.

Poaching and capture is not as big an issue as it has been for the African elephant. Asian elephants tusks are usually small, so the payout is hardly worth the effort involved. However there is still some percentage attributed to the decline in elephant populations. A bigger concern is the capture part of this subheading. Scores of elephants are captured live every year for different causes, with Thailand being one of the main ‘consumers’ as it feeds their tourist trade. A few governments, such as India, Myanmar and Vietnam have outlawed elephant capture in efforts to conserve wild herds. However the trade is still thriving, particularly in Myanmar where they are sold into the timber industry, or illegal wildlife trade. The crude methods in which the elephants are captured is another high concern, as it has lead to an incredibly high mortality rate. Efforts are being made to not only discourage wild capture, but if they have to trade, to use captive breeding, as 30% of all Asian elephants are now in captivity.

2 adult elephant sandwiching a baby elephant.
Baby got back?

For the African elephant things are in dire straits, and I don’t mean the band. In a similar story: in 1930 there were somewhere between 5-10 million wild elephants on the African continent. By 1979 there were 1.3 million. By 1989 there were 600,000, less than 10% of their original number at a maximum. Today there around 500,000 elephants left. And the main threat here is poaching, beyond question. I ask how can our species sit back and look at the devastation it has wrought without feeling the slightest hint of remorse. What is worse is that it is still ongoing, with demand for ivory at a record high. It’s sickening. Fortunately conservation efforts are improving, and one day we can hope to see elephant populations recover to a more substantial number, I fear, however, that the 90% population recovery may never happen.

So back to the title, what on earth is it all about. After giving the basic data we can look at one particular scheme that has been taking place since Jan 2014. The ‘Chor Chaang Saving Elephants’ campaign. ‘Chor Chaang’ refers to two things. Chaang being the Thai word for elephant, and Chor being the phonetic letter that is used to spell the first part of the name. Much like the English phrase ‘E for Elephant’. WWF has been encouraging the Thai public and officials, ranging from the poorest to the wealthiest, the everyday person to the most influential, to symbolically remove the letter ‘ Chor Chaang’, ช, from their names, take a picture, and then post it on-line. This meant that the individuals were opposed to the ivory trade and would not support it, and they would lend their voice to the thousands supporting the National Ivory Action Plan, which was submitted  to CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) on September 30, 2014. January 15, 2015 was the deadline for a progress report, however these reports have not been made public as Thailand is an area of ‘primary concern’ in the National Ivory Action Plan. Thailand was requested to revise their plan after very limited progress was made, this revision was submitted in September 2014, with reports to be completed and submitted by January and March 2015. I apologise for the lack of stats here, but the results simply aren’t available to the public, possibly from fear of some form of denouncement from other countries and their own nationals.

An african elephant sizing up the photographer.
Incredible photo of an old male African elephant, substantially bigger than the Asian elephant. Almost a metre taller, and the biggest can be a tonne heavier!

I ask, can this campaign save the elephants? And I have come to the conclusion that, no it cannot. Obviously the campaign is part of a larger campaign, and can be viewed as a single finger on a hand. It is concerned with bringing the National Ivory Action Plan to the public’s eyes, so they can help to change the fate of the elephant. I view it, however, as entirely superficial. Yes it may have made a few people aware, but surely the funds, planning time, and all the resources that went into it could have been better spent elsewhere. A better campaign could have been made, and one that would have brought more of an international focus to the plight of the endearing elephant.

What’s worse is I have come across a shocking story in recent news, April 2015, where Thai customs stopped a shipment of ‘tea leaves’ to Laos. Inside were 511 pieces of elephant ivory. The container did come from Kenya, but I can say without a doubt that another container was most likely shipped to Thailand itself. Obviously this is speculation, so do not take it for concrete fact, but it shows the limited impact the campaigns are having. Laos is the neighbour to Thailand for those concerned, which demonstrates the need for a massive intervention. Yes it is wonderful that Thai customs caught the container, but this was the second massive haul in less than a week, with this incident happening on the 25th of April, and a record four-tonne haul being stopped at Bangkok’s main port on the 20th. It shows the need to stop the source rather than disrupt the trade link. Action must be taken.

An asiatic elephant and an egret in very close proximity on a grassy field.
‘Morning Egret’

One good action taken by CITES has been to threaten Thailand with an international band on the entire countries wildlife business, which would cost the country hundreds of millions.

For more information please visit WWF: wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/elephants/, and read up on news stories to see the issues for yourselves.

There are thousands of elephant charities, one of the biggest being the Adopt program run by the WWF, for £3 a month: www.wwf-adopt-a-animal.co.uk/charities/wwf-animal-adoptions/adopt-an-elephant/.

Thank you for reading, I appreciate any feedback as always.

The Maile Online2 elephants linking trunks in front of a stormy background.

Post-Script: This is an older post from my old blog, 2015.

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