Projects in Thailand
Despite being important national, royal and religious symbols, fewer than 2,000 wild elephants remain in Thailand. Forests once covered the country and elephants thrived within. But as the human population grew, so the forests were cleared for timber and agriculture, ironically facilitated by elephants taken into captivity from the wild as beasts of burden. As the forests disappeared, so too did the elephants, if they hadn't already been taken into captivity or poached for their tusks.
When the Thai government enforced a logging ban in 1989, the little forest left was at last protected. The greatest expanse of forest, containing half of Thailand's wild elephants, is known as the Western Forest Complex (or WEFCOM) and covers the mountains along the border with Myanmar. Smaller forested areas with elephants are found in the south towards Malaysia, and in the east and northeast.
While good news for the forests and the wild elephants, the logging ban was bad news for the thousands of captive elephants that were being used in the logging industry. Many were reduced to a life of street begging with their unemployed mahouts. But the big city isn’t kind to elephants. In fact, the effects of traffic, pollution and poor diet lowers their average life expectancy to just five years.
Many elephants have found their way into the tourism industry, where they now have an alternative livelihood providing entertainment. So successful is the tourism industry that an illegal trade in live elephants caught from the wild still thrives. Any purchase of an elephant, even in a bid to rescue it from a life of begging on the streets, threatens to drive this illegal trade, posing a threat to the remaining populations of wild elephants in Thailand, and especially over the border in Myanmar.