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Denial is not (just) a river in Egypt

By John Roberts
25 September 2013 10:30:00

I spent most of yesterday in an over-airconditioned room listening to some passionate people scream into microphones in languages I barely understood, calm people explain some not-yet-thought-through plans while a group of people I have come to really respect stayed quite and observed with either a growing sense of doom or some detached mild amusement.

I thought I had placed myself in the latter, but by the time it reached beer-O-Clock and I was back home with the family, the mental strain of the whole thing that seeped through my veins with the first sip of Chang Draft lead me to conclude that some of the former had snuck in too.

Good news: I put myself somewhere into the category of people I respect.

What has happened to put me in this place?  Well, in one way our dream has come true, we may be getting what we asked for which just goes to prove that the old adage to be careful what you ask for has become an old adage for a reason.

It is good advice.

What has happened? (& I’m going to answer this on face value, I’m well aware there are deeper issues and the angels on both sides in the debate have some devils standing behind them and that not everyone who has a microphone actually believes what they are saying.  Some would (in fact some did) say, that by not acknowledging this I am also in denial but the issue is complex enough that while my mind digs around in the messy stuff behind the scenes my reporting will stick with the faces – hell, we’re all ugly enough anyway).

What has happened?  Weeeeelllll, you’ll remember that at the Conference of Parties to the Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species in March this year our Prime Minister, Ms. Yingluck, stood up before the world and said something along the lines of “we will put a stop to Thailand’s internal ivory trade” in a move to help CITES better protect Africa’s elephants.  You’ll also remember a furore over the continued discovery of dead or illegally captured wild elephants in Thailand’s national parks – and that we’re reasonably sure that these are being caught to replace elephants that someone has bought to bring into the tourist industry.

A mahout who has just had his elephant bought has no elephant and lots of money, he buys another elephant (& in one of yesterday’s lucid moments an elephant guy addressed the panel & said “if an elephant was worth 100,000 baht there’d be no problem but now an elephant is worth up to 2,000,000 baht, of course we’re tempted to catch them”).

You’ll also remember from previous missives that elephant law in Thailand is complex and somewhat outdated.

So, these three things came to a head and, possibly because they were agency sitting in CITES when the speech was made and they are the ones getting shouted at for losing wild elephants (and possibly because they wanted the job anyway for reasons we won’t go into until we have more information), the job fell to the Department of National Parks to do something about it.

They have concluded that it is the people who work with captive elephants that are causing the at least some of problems for wild elephants (something you may have heard me say here before) and that the elephant laws we have aren’t being enforced.

Here they run up against a brick wall: uniquely, elephants drop out of their jurisdiction the minute they become captive (or are never in if they are born captive).  Every other native wildlife species in Thailand (particularly endangered) falls under their jurisdiction whether in a cage or in the jungle, even when born in a cage – if I want to breed native pheasants in a box at home I need a license even for the products of my breeding programme.

Their solution?  Have all Thai elephants declared a single species; bring them all under the jurisdiction of the DNP by declaring them native wildlife then toughen up the penalties for breaking the laws.

To do this they have come up with a roadmap (well actually an upside down flow chart but everyone likes roadmaps nowadays) with four goals:

1.     To stop the trade in ivory.

2.     To reduce (reduce, mind you, not stop) the instances of elephants begging on the streets.

3.     To reduce (reduce, mind you, not stop) the instances of wild elephant capture and hunting.

4.     For elephants and people to live in harmony.

The response?  Well, that shocked me, well, actually no it didn’t – it did shock me that you could behave like that at a public enquiry (well, I guess anyone who watches the Thai parliament channel can claim to be debating from example and that things don’t really get out of hand until chairs get thrown – no chairs were thrown but we did have a share of (literally) sleeping officials, I didn’t see anyone looking at porn (or pictures of their grandchildren as the story goes) but possibly only because there was no wi-fi so we were better than your average day in parliament).  I digress.

Suffice to say there was a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth from the ‘chao chang’ – elephant people, which became something of a rallying call – and also, surprisingly to me, from people who seem to spend most of their public life calling for new laws to help elephants but who seemed keen to gain applause from the Chao Chang.

Bravely I kept my mouth shut.

Now, I work and live amongst the ‘chao chang’ of Thailand, I have raised money outside and spent money within their community, I have rushed to their defence in these very pages when I felt they have been slighted, I’ve helped make movies about them & I’ve stated their case many times to journalists and skeptics around the world – at times I have even been declared chao chang myself and worn that as a badge of honour.

But I have failed, I think that was the reason for the sense of doom, because if there was anything I should have been doing, I should have been preparing them for this day.

The facts are, as I see them, groups of people have been acting illegally for at least ten years, some of them (not all of them) have got rich (some very rich) doing so – we have stood by them, showed, as best we can, that comfortable livings can be earned legally and ethically and that, for the business minded, profits can also be made by living within rules designed to ensure the sustainability of their lifestyle.

This message, it seems, has largely been ignored because acting unsustainably has been able to provide greater amounts of money.

I do not buy ANY of the arguments being put forward (we are but poor simple mahouts and the registration laws are too complex; we’ve always done it this way; there are too many wild elephants; if other people a smuggling ivory/elephants into Thailand to sell to us it’s not our fault; if other people are catching wild elephants to sell to us it’s not our fault), as human beings, as a community, we are called upon to act within the law.  The fact that is possible to operate within the law but money has been made by ignoring and avoiding the law (taking advantage of the fact that there has been little political will to enforce the law) for however many years does not make it your right to act outside the law - if it was not possible to make a living inside the law then we might have a point.

Being allowed to get away with it for a long time doesn’t mean you should be allowed to indefinitely.

Actually, forget the law, I’m all for righteous outlaws myself, I’ve sometimes been known to encourage my vehicle to travel faster than the law permits (it’s not my fault that someone has built a vehicle that can go faster than the police like me to and that roads can be empty long and straight – but when they catch me I pay the fine with a wry smile & drive slower (for awhile)).

I very nearly bought the ‘Chao Chang’ thing though, got caught up in the emotion of the speakers, “we’re guardians of special tradition and the laws imposed by the majority should not apply to us, we should be granted special exceptions” (indeed, I may have argued the same thing for the genuine Chao Chang in these very pages in the past) but….

…special or not, no community (including politicians but that’s another story) ought to be allowed to behave in an unsustainable manner to the detriment of society in general.

True, it may not be entirely the Chao Chang’s fault that elephants and the forests they protect are in trouble (there is also the question of habitat loss – overseen since WWII largely by the same department that runs the DNP, lack of law enforcement in far away Africa, or ivory demand in closer, but still far away, China) but almost all the arguments made for the continuation of the, illegal, status quo started from a standpoint of denial of the facts that currently, in Thailand, we have a problem with illegal ivory, illegal elephant capture and illegal elephant hunting and that these problems are causing problems for both species of elephants and for the forests that depend on them and on which we, the human race, depend for clean water, oxygen & all the other stuff forests give us.

The room was collectively in denial that the way we have been behaving is demonstrably unsustainable.  I would argue that if we had been behaving sustainably Mrs Yingluck would not have been forced by global opinion to stand up and promise an end to the ivory trade, the Department of National Parks would not have been forced by Thai public outrage to try and put a stop to elephant hunting and capture.

It even may be possible that the authorities were happy with the status quo too and that was the reason that the old laws were not, let's say, overly enforced until local and international outrage forced the higher ups to start making pledges and asking questions to save the country's reputation and businesses larger than the elephant one. 

One of the tricks to living outside the law is not getting caught and, guys, you’ve been caught, time to change the way you do business.

At Anantara we've spent the last  ten years working on a model that seems to work for all, happy to share.

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P.S. I’ll no doubt write more on the actual proposed law when I’ve translated it all, it currently has some loopholes in it that need filling, there were a few people in the meeting who seemed to understand the purpose of a public hearing (at least ostensibly) is to help the relevant authority spot the possible loopholes and give suggestions as to how to fill.  Edwin Wiek of the Wildlife Friends of Thailand was one of the few with good suggestions, an old friend Dr Sumolya from Chulalongkorn University was another.  Let’s see how many of their comments get written into the next draft before we swing the pendulum the other way and I'm writing a piece on ineffectual new laws.

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