The wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC says in a two-year period to March 2013, 81 wild elephants were illegally captured for sale to the Thai tourism sector.
Nearly two-thirds of the elephants trafficked were from neighbouring Myanmar.
TRAFFIC is calling for tougher Thai laws and penalties to curb the illegal trade.
Presenter: Sen Lam
Speaker: Dr Chris Shepherd, Southeast Asia director for the wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC
SHEPHERD: Asian elephants are endangered. They face a number of threats - habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, illegal hunting for their tusks in the males, especially. They're also killed as crop pests, conflict animal, et cetera. So the capture of live elephants from Myanmar, where populations are declining, to supply this trade, is alarming. Every animal taken out of the population, should be considered a conservation concern.
LAM: And according to TRAFFIC, just over a two-year period alone, wild elephants that were illegally stolen from neighbouring Myanmar, numbered 80. Is that a very high figure?
SHEPHERD: It is. That's a very significant number. As I mentioned, populations are dropping, so those kinds of numbers are frightening. It's also alarming that that many elephants have been brought into the trade illegally, undetected.
LAM: Do we know who is stealing and trafficking these wild animals?
SHEPHERD: Any cross-border trade, especially of animals that are obviously hard to hide, given their size - it's well organised. So there will be networks of people, connected to groups that specialise in catching the elephants, and then breaking the elephants. Very often, in order to move animals across the border, corruption or complacency amongst the border officials, is useful in getting the animals across the border. And then, they're moved into the entertainment industry or the tourism industry. Obviously, not everyone in those industries is involved in this trade, but enough of them are, that it's giving it a bad name.
LAM: How would you like the Thai authorities to toughen the laws and also to tighten procedures, in order to protect the elephants?
SHEPHERD: Currently, there's a loophole in Thailand's laws that facilitate calves taken from the wild, to be laundered into the legal trade. Elephant calves are registered only when they become eight years of age, so trappers or poachers are catching elephants younger than that, selling them to dealers who then register them as being 'captive bred'. We are calling on the authorities to amend this legislation, to ensure that calves are registered upon birth, to close this loophole. And we're also asking that captive elephants and wild elephants are both covered under the wildlife legislation in Thailand.
LAM: Given that the tourism sector is such a lucrative industry, how much political will is there, to protect these elephants, which after all, the majority are from Myanmar?
SHEPHERD: Well, both Thailand and Myanmar are part of the CITES - the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna. And this convention does not allow for cross-border trade of Asian elephants. Given that they've become party to that, that does signify there is a will to do something about the wildlife trade. We've seen enforcement efforts throughout the region increase over the last few years, and we're hoping that we see a continuation of enforcement efforts on the Thai side, in cracking down on the trade and hopefully, investigations carried out jointly between the two countries, to really find out who is behind this trade, and tear these networks apart.
LAM: Do we know, which are the stolen elephants, and which are elephants bred in captivity?
SHEPHERD: There is a system in Thailand, where any elephants that are legally kept in captivity are registered with the government. Any calves born of captive elephants are registered. So there is a system in place. There are loopholes having calves not registered at birth, but they're registered at eight years of age, gives plenty of opportunities for calves to be laundered into this registration scheme.
LAM: Does TRAFFIC hava a problem with the argument that perhaps it is for the elephants' good, if they are able to breed in capitivity, and put to work in the tourism sector -that that itself is a form of protection of their species?
SHEPHERD: We've seen with captive breeding in a number cases - often they can be bred in captivity for commercial purposes, but very rarely does it have a significant or any conservation value. Many species are bred commercially, and yet in the wild, their numbers are still dropping or are almost extinct.
Crocodiles for example, some species are bred by the hundreds of thousands in captivity, and yet in the wild, many populations are completely gone and still under poaching pressure.
I don't believe captive breeding is the solution - I think better protection of animals in the wild, enforcement on the borders carried out jointly between Myanmar and Thailand, and more responsibility amongst tourists is the key.
Tourists should not be going to places where animals are being abused or exploited. If you're not sure that the place that you're visiting is legitimate or is caring for the wild animals they're using, or has acquired, then don't go, don't spend your money there.
LAM: Are there sectors of the Thai tourism industry that put money back into conservation values, into conservation efforts?
SHEPHERD: I'm sure there are. There're elephant camps where the owners are talking to the public about elephant conservation issues, and there's alot of opportunity to do more of that. I believe that any business that is using wildlife, should be contributing to the conservation of the species in the wild.