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Why Don’t We Know How Many Elephants We Have?

By John Roberts
18 May 2017 03:16:00

One of the questions I am most often asked is “How Many Elephants Do You Have?” to which I reply, “Somewhere over 20, err… they come and go… mostly come…. we’ve got some new ones… ask Mutsa”.  But that’s because I’m an old man and I move around too much - anyway however many elephants we have on site is not really important (correct answer 23) except to the accountants who want to know why we spend so much on bananas.

Of far more importance is how many elephants we have in captivity, in Thailand, in South East Asia or, in fact, globally.  This is important because only once we know how many we have, factoring in how many are being busy being born and how many are dying, can we begin to realistically answer the question whether any are being taken from the wild or being smuggled in from neighboring countries (possibly having been taken from the wild there).

A couple of weeks ago we hosted the first meeting of Thai delegates of the IUCN Asian Elephant Specialist Group for decades - the group has, of course, been working during those decades but only recently have they decided that meeting for a gossip would be a good idea every now and then.  Plus there are some new members, young blood to go alongside the old matriarchs and tuskers, so good that everyone knows what everyone looks like and can all be on the same Line group or whatever passes for a page nowadays.

The catalyst for the meeting was the visit of the Specialist Group’s new(ish) Chairman and Coordinator, the Wildlife Trust of India’s Dr’s Vivek & Sandeep - powerful people of deep knowledge and gravitas people who, when they ask you a question, you want to have an answer.

They asked, not having been to Thailand for a few years, “How many elephants do you have?”.

My schoolmates always hated me but I survived, so, being a swat I jumped up & said, 3,471 sir, because that’s the official Government figure, as outlined below with “99% of the elephants counted”.

Official Captive Elephant Numbers in Thailand

Well unfortunately for me an actual Government Official stood up and said, with greater gravitas and the benefit of actual papers and things, around 4,200.

So, how to reconcile that 1% of 3,471 is actually around 729?

Well, firstly the 3,471 is the official number, that’s the number of elephants whose blood was taken to check DNA, who have a new ‘pink book’ registration card and who were counted in the recent joint operation by the Department of National Parks (in charge of wild elephants), Department of Livestock Development (in charge of captive elephants) & Departments of Provincial Administration (in charge of people and businesses) and, theoretically (theoretically), without being on that list you would not be able to get permission to move your elephant between provinces and any business, tourism or otherwise (but there is only tourism) would be very foolish to employ you.

DNA Check

Theoretically (theoretically) without being on that list you are no longer a Thai elephant.

But I think the big difference lies in the fact that the 4,200 number is gathered by vets who, as they pointed out, have visited & got hands on with all of those elephants, have been doing for years and know where the elephants are ‘cause they haven’t just collected blood, they’ve treated their wounds, they’ve drunk whisky with their mahouts and, yes, they’ve taken blood.

Therein lies the discrepancy I think.  When the vets come to town all elephants come in, even those with slightly dodgy histories, even, as I heard from some very high sources, from across the border in Myanmar and the vets, being good vets, microchip and record them so they don’t double dose, can check for recurring conditions, weight loss and all the other things a good medical person keeps medical records for.

When the law comes to town those elephants with slightly dodgy histories, they stay in the bushes, those in Myanmar damn well stay there even if they have a microchip from a Thai vet because microchips are not legally binding, just the first step to getting paperwork.

So, if it were my choice - which it is not - I would stick to the 3,471 number, ask the vets to continue treating elephants whether or not they have a pink book, because that’s what good vets do & that way we can get valuable intelligence but, very strongly, I would say, no more grace period, if you are not one of the 3,471 that more-or-less voluntarily came forward to be recorded this spring you are an elephant in Thailand but not a Thai elephant.

Digging our heels in with an absolute number is the only way we’ll ever know how many elephants are being taken from the wild and the only way we’ll ever be able to stop that happening.

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