Asian Elephants Are Threatened by Poachers and Western Zoos

Illegal poaching and demand from Western zoos are fueling the extinction of the Asian elephant, animal welfare groups said on Thursday.

BANGKOK — Illegal poaching and demand from Western zoos are fueling the extinction of the Asian elephant, animal welfare groups said on Thursday.

They lashed out at zoos in Australia and New Zealand, which have requested 37 of the endangered elephants from Thailand.

"Western zoos have always wanted elephants because they're big money spinners, but now there's a convenient excuse," said Vivek Menon, executive director of the Wildlife Trust of India. "They say that these elephants are being maltreated in Asia where they are used to pull logs, and that is a situation of great sadness and we are saving them by giving them air-conditioned stalls in zoos," Menon said.

Speaking before a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) gets underway in Bangkok on Saturday, Menon said fewer than 50,000 Asian elephants remained in the region.

The species is, by some estimates, about one-tenth of the population of its bigger cousin, the African elephant.

"Asian elephants desperately need to be conserved in their home range states, not shipped abroad under the guise of a 'conservation breeding program,' which will have no long-term benefits for the species," Aster Zhang, China director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said in a statement.

Poaching continues to be a major threat, with illegal ivory from Asian elephants especially prized in Japan where it can fetch up to US$400 a kg on the black market. With only the tusk-bearing male elephants targeted by hunters, the species is desperately short of breeding elephants.

Menon said despite the threat of exploitation and hunting in Asia, the often lonely conditions in western zoos presented a far worse fate for elephants.

"Solitary confinement or keeping elephants in small groups which are not their families is worse then death. These are highly social animals which are remarkably like humans," he said. "When you want to punish a human being, other than capital punishment, solitary confinement is considered the worst sort of punishment. I think a zoo in which you keep these animals either solitarily or in forced groups is the worst possible outcome."

Animal welfare groups said they expected Thailand to agree to the sale of 37 Asian elephants to Australian and New Zealand zoos, but they questioned the legality of the trade.

Asian elephants have been protected from trade since 1976 under CITES, but a loophole allows for second generation elephants bred in captivity to be exempt from the ban for noncommercial purposes.

However, animal activists believe some of the animals sold most likely come from the wild.

Source: Reuters