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Hilary Benn and Others Call For Coordinated Government Efforts to Save the Asian Elephant

At the Labour Party Conference yesterday, Hilary Benn MP expressed his very strong support for the campaign that Elephant Family is waging to save the Asian elephant, and spoke of the need for a more joined up government response to the problems facing the world. He was speaking at a fringe debate organised by Progress (the New Labour pressure group) on behalf of Elephant Family, which examined the increasing threats to the Asian Elephant and what can be done to help them, particularly by governments.

In her opening address, Ruth Powys, Director of Elephant Family, spoke of the great threats to the Asian elephant, the need for government involvement, and the need to act now. Pointing out that there are government budgets that can be focused towards biodiversity under the umbrella of Asian elephants, she also questioned what could be done beyond providing investment: “This meeting is our first step towards trying to engage with decision-makers and influencers to find out what the UK government is doing, what they’re willing to do, and whether there’s another way to solve this problem”.

Mr C. Rajasekhar, Political Minister from the High Commission of India, reminded those present of how central the elephant is to the ethos, law and culture in India and how the recent publication of the Elephant Task Force report laid out his government’s plans to protect them. These include recommendations: to create a new National Elephant Conservation Authority; to provide the equivalent of £80 million investment over five years; to organise an international conference on elephant conservation; and of course “to declare [the] elephant as a national heritage animal so that this helps to catch the imagination of the general public about the need to conserve and to protect the elephant”.

The Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, then spoke of how what has been happening to the Asian elephant fits into the bigger challenge that the world faces to preserve that which is special about the small and fragile planet that we inhabit: “The fight to protect the Asian elephant is part of this bigger fight, and they are magnificent creatures and very powerful symbols of the importance of living in harmony with all of the creatures on this Earth”.

He pointed out that the international conference on biodiversity that is taking place in Nagoya, Japan, next month – the meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity – is an opportunity to reflect on what has worked and what has not in terms of meeting biodiversity conservation targets, as well as to set new ones. However, he went on to say that there is more to it than that: “Those who are involved in wildlife and natural environment organisations, biodiversity, and care about climate change, understand instinctively why these things are important and matter. But not everybody sees that value for the future of humankind. We really have to change the way in which we think about the world and the natural environment in particular”.

Echoing these sentiments, but in the specific context of human-elephant conflict, Ian Cawsey, former Labour Party Vice Chair for Animal Welfare, added: “You can see where the conflict comes from. And actually a lot of the loss of elephants in Asia, and indeed in Africa for that matter, has been humans thinking that they are protecting what is theirs, because they don’t see a bigger picture. And it’s the bigger picture that we need to build, and of course to help those people to develop lifestyles in a way that they are not in conflict with elephant populations across the world”.

Displaying an extensive knowledge of measures to reduce human-elephant conflict, from the use of chilli on fences and planting crops that elephants won’t raid, to providing alternative incomes to farmers, education and community awareness, Mr Cawsey added: “There are solutions to this, there’s just not very much time to get them in place and to make them work. But if Labour and other political parties will give us their support in helping us in our work then I think we can make a huge difference and save these elephants”.

Finally, calling on the earlier speech of David Miliband MP about internationalism having to win over cynicism, he made it clear: “It’s actually internationalism at getting governments and organisations across the globe working together that means that you can deal with these sorts of issues in Asia and in Africa and find long-term solutions to it.”

While the debate touched on other issues, including the role that zoos could play in Asian elephant conservation – limited, at the very best, to just awareness raising in the better zoos – the main focus was on what governments can do. In particular, Robbie Marsland, UK Director of IFAW, asked “how can we approach this government – any government – about joined up thinking approaches to conservation” to have involvement throughout government in animal welfare and conservation.

In response, Hilary Benn confessed that when he was Secretary of State for International Development that the response to environmental work within the Department for International Development was not very positive, because they simply had other priorities at the time. He therefore went on to say that governments need to realise that the problems facing the world are increasingly interconnected and that a far more joined up response is required, with investment at the level of entire ecosystems.

Beyond that, in terms of what the UK government can do, Hilary Benn reminded us that while Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he opposed a one-off sale of stock-piled ivory that was proposed earlier this year, arguing that “You can’t support something that’s going to damage the thing you’re trying to protect in the first place”: the moratorium on ivory-trading was upheld by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

In her concluding remarks, Ruth Powys confirmed that it had been a useful debate about joined up thinking, and while looking for leadership in the case of the UK, urged governments to put down on paper in a binding way what they’re going to do, and to make sure that recommendations are turned into action.

Finally, Emma Reynolds MP of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, who chaired the event, summed up by urging everyone to put pressure on the current government saying, “It’s great that you’ve raised this it at the conference and I think that we’ve got to do some follow-up actions now: this is just the start of it.”

Before departing, the speakers of the event then added their voice to the Elephant Family petition to save the Asian elephant, by signing a full-size elephant statue of the sort that adorned the streets of London earlier this year during Elephant Parade London, which Elephant Family hosted in partnership with Elephant Parade Ltd.

Read more here

Valuing Biodiversity

A vital report was released today that may finally communicate the importance of wildlife and habitat conservation in a language that could lead to it being taken more seriously by decision-makers: economics. The final report of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study – sponsored by the United Nations – shows that the cost of losing ecosystems and their biodiversity will ultimately be far greater than the investment that is required now to save them. Three years in the making, this represents the first ever effort to quantify the economic value of biodiversity and ecosystems.

The report has been launched on the third day of an all important conference of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), in Nagoya, Japan. The target of achieving a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010 – set in 2002 both at a previous CBD conference and at a UN World Summit on Sustainable Development – has not been met, and the problems have been getting worse. It is therefore hoped that this latest CBD conference will come up with firm new targets to be hit before 2020.

Environmental politics has of late been mainly dominated by climate change, while the long-term damage being caused by an escalating loss of biodiversity and ecosystems has largely been overlooked. As quoted recently in The Independent, the situation was put succinctly by the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Professor Stephen Hopper: "Biodiversity loss is as big or even more significant a long-term challenge to us – extinction is final, whereas with climate change we have the prospect of getting on top of it if we change our behaviour”.

With its vision of “making nature economically visible” the TEEB report has set out to redress this imbalance. As the report lays out, the conservation of biodiversity and the maintenance of important ecosystems is essential for the value they provide to human societies through “ecosystem services”.

Such ecosystem services include the direct use values of “provisioning services” (wild foods, crops, fresh-water, natural medicines etc.) and the non-consumptive use values of “cultural services”, which include recreation, education, spiritual and aesthetic values). Until now there has been a great push on the field of conservation to find ways of having wildlife “pay for itself” through such services. One of the best examples of this is ecotourism – a non-consumptive, recreational service – where maintaining wild environments and the animals they contain can provide a sustainable, competitive income for people, particularly at a local level, and in some cases even at a national level. Ecotourism can work, but not everywhere, and efforts to force it to work can place wider conservation efforts in jeopardy in areas to which it is ill-suited, especially when the promised economic returns fail to materialise. Even where it does work, either greed or the relentless need to keep competing with other economic demands, or both, can push ecotourism beyond sustainable levels and actually do more damage to the environment or the species that it sets out to help in the first place.

The bigger picture has therefore been required for some time, and while the TEEB report does incorporate the economic role that ecotourism can play, its real value is in highlighting the intrinsic value of biodiversity and ecosystems to life on the planet, through its indirect use values. These include “regulatory” and “supporting” services: everything from water purification, climate regulation (e.g. carbon storage), pollination and protection from disasters of the former, to soil formation, photosynthesis and nutrient cycling of the latter. One example of this quoted in the report is that US$3.7 trillion of damage from climate change would be averted if deforestation rates were halved by 2030. And yet this figure doesn’t even take into account the other benefits of forest ecosystems.

Incorporating the values of nature into decision-making at all levels by following the TEEB report’s recommendations would place much needed greater emphasis on the importance of conservation. This will require a “transformative journey” and the Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP, the former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, spoke of similar with specific reference to Asian elephants at last month’s Labour Party Conference debate: “Those who are involved in wildlife and natural environment organisations.... and care about climate change, understand instinctively why these things are important and matter. But not everybody sees that value for the future of humankind. We really have to change the way in which we think about the world and the natural environment in particular”.

For Elephant Family, Asian elephant conservation is about so much more than just saving one endangered species from extinction: it’s about preserving some of the most important environments on the planet. Asian elephants are not only flagship species for these environments, they are also what ecologists refer to as “keystone” species, meaning that their very existence and behaviour is important to maintain the richness and character of their particular environment. For example, elephants maintain the variety of plant species in their habitat through extensive browsing; they help maintain and in some cases create waterholes; they disperse (and help germinate) seeds in their faeces; and so on. Losing elephants from any particular habitat has a highly detrimental knock-on effect to its levels of biodiversity. As the TEEB report makes clear, biodiversity has a key role in delivering certain ecosystem services and contributes to the ability of an ecosystem to keep providing these services under changing environmental conditions, what is known as ecosystem resilience.

This year has been the International Year of Biodiversity, and Elephant Family has been proud to be an active partner of the UK partnership in support of this. With Asian elephants as such important standard bearers for biodiversity, Elephant Family therefore hopes that the representatives at the CBD conference in Nagoya can take heed of the TEEB reports recommendations, and develop some very definite plans for halting the loss of biodiversity before much more is irretrievably lost.

Read more from the BBC news website here, or The Independent here

Has Enough Value Been Placed on Biodiversity?

A week ago today, the conference of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), in Nagoya, Japan, reached what was widely considered to be a successful conclusion. Unlike last year’s Copenhagen climate talks, an agreement was settled, and having failed to stem the loss of biodiversity against previous targets, a new ten-year plan was developed. Amongst other things, the parties “agreed to at least halve and where feasible bring close to zero the rate of loss of natural habitats”. Targets were set for 17% of the planet’s land surface and 10% of the seas to become protected areas by 2020. And substantial increases in the level of funding provided to carry out the plans were pledged. But is this enough, even if the targets are met this time round? 

Reaching such an agreement between 18,000 participants from the 193 parties to the CBD is certainly an achievement, and with so many competing demands it is understandable that targets might not have gone as far as many had hoped. Yet other conservationists have been quick to point out that up to 13% of the Earth’s surface is already protected, while the target of protecting 10% of the seas remains unchanged from before. Having already failed the 2010 target of a “significant reduction” in the rate of biodiversity loss, the agreement still openly acknowledges that many more natural habitats are going to be lost.

Some still see a ray of hope in the fact that the issue is now firmly on the political agenda. The release of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity report – the first ever effort to quantify the economic value of biodiversity and ecosystems – has been seen as crucial for this. It is in many ways depressing that “this approach reduces the biosphere to a subsidiary of the economy”, as George Monbiot put it earlier this week in The Guardian. But as mentioned before, at least now it’s in a language that decision-makers will not only understand, but will also hopefully take more seriously. Perhaps even heads of state will attend the next biodiversity conference!

All the same, Monbiot (who also points out that a binding agreement from Nagoya has yet to actually materialise) issues a far more grave concern: “As soon as something is measurable it becomes negotiable. Subject the natural world to cost-benefit analysis and accountants and statisticians will decide which parts of it we can do without."

Sadly, in the short-term this is probably so. Therefore the real challenge is to get governments worldwide to take the long-term view, where the value of ecosystems and biodiversity will literally stand the test of time.

Take Asian elephants, for example. Calculating their long-term economic value would still surely be a useful exercise that could aid their conservation.

Elephants are one of the greatest examples of an ecological “keystone” species: the lives of so many other organisms depend on their existence and they define the ecosystems in which they are found. Their consumption of vast amounts of vegetation, and even how they physically open up clearings, for example, ensures that certain plant species don’t come to dominate in any one environment. This results in a much greater variety of plants and also animals that feed on them. Elephants’ feeding behaviour is also such that what they spill or shake free from high branches can suddenly become available to other animals. Elephants are also known to enlarge and deepen water supplies with their tusks in times of drought, and this too benefits countless other animals. Furthermore, numerous plants rely on them to disperse their seeds and help them germinate in their very own parcels of organic fertiliser. Animals that subsequently feed on these plants, and the animals that feed on them, therefore indirectly depend on the elephants. Because of the great quantity of seeds that they are passing and the distances over which they do so, one can see how elephants genuinely do shape their environments. Lose the elephants and the ecosystems rapidly deteriorate.

The sort of “ecosystem services” that these environments provide to the planet, as well as to sustain human life, include everything from water purification, climate regulation (e.g. carbon storage), pollination and protection from disasters, to soil formation, photosynthesis and nutrient cycling. Therefore, because of the key role that they play (let alone their cultural value and the income they help generate through tourism), wouldn’t it be useful to know just how valuable Asian elephants are to the world?

It seems that there is still a great deal of convincing to be done before biodiversity and ecosystems are valued sufficiently. In the meantime, once the agreement from the CBD conference does finally emerge, it will first and foremost be our collective responsibility to ensure that governments worldwide do come good on all that they have agreed for biodiversity. And then push for more!

Read the George Monbiot article in The Guardian here

First Steps to Securing International Unity for Elephant Conservation

Following the recommendations of its Elephant Task Force Report and declaration of the elephant as a national heritage animal, India yesterday began fulfilling its pledge to take an international lead on elephant conservation, by hosting the inaugural meeting of the “Elephant-8 group” – the eight countries with the world’s largest number of elephants. Funded by the Ministry of Environment and Forest and organised by Elephant Family’s partner organisation, the Wildlife Trust of India, environment ministers or officials from India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand – representing Asia – and Botswana, Republic of Congo, Kenya and Tanzania – representing Africa – met in New Delhi “to take forward the common goal of elephant conservation and management in all range countries”. The meeting culminated in the “New Delhi E-8 Recommendation”, with the eight countries taking the lead “to embark upon collaborative efforts on elephant conservation”.

Opening the meeting, Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh (pictured above) stressed that "from poaching for their ivory to habitat loss, every issue to conserve the elephant needs to be addressed”. He went on to point out that in India, unlike the tiger, which faces the threat of extinction, the elephant faces threats of attrition: elephant numbers have not increased or decreased drastically, but there is increasing pressure on their habitat. This is a serious concern that will be addressed by involving people in elephant conservation and welfare. With this he launched a nationwide Haathi Mere Saathi (“Elephants My Friends”) campaign, complete with campaign mascot and logo. This will increase awareness among people and improve their co-existence with elephants, and is to be carried out in partnership with the Wildlife Trust of India with support from Elephant Family.

Following an overview of elephant conservation and national presentations from the countries represented, separate discussions explored “Science and Conservation”, “Management and Conservation”, and “Cultural and Ethical perspectives of conservation”. The outcomes of these discussions were presented and then the E-8 resolutions were adopted.

As a first output from this process, the “New Delhi E-8 Recommendation”, has broad and uncontentious aims, “to actively pursue a common agenda to ensure long-term welfare and survival of all species of elephants in all range countries, and to realise this global goal”. This is therefore a positive first step, following which more specific actions can be determined. As such the E-8 countries also resolved that the First International Congress of the “Elephant-50:50 Forum” will be held in early 2013, also in New Delhi, as originally conceived in the Elephant Task Force Report.

Next year’s International Congress is expected to bring about a shared vision of 50 States to promote conservation, management and welfare of elephants over the next 50 years. This will take into account the existing African Elephant Action Plan and the need for something similar for Asian elephants, for which Elephant Family’s Survival Charter is proposed as a first working draft for an agreement, to which national plans would then be attached. Elephant Family therefore welcomes the progress made yesterday, as if a legally-binding agreement on elephant conservation could be secured, a powerful tool will have been created for coordinating collaborative strategies for elephant conservation and for taking governments to task for their implementation.

Train Kills a Young Elephant in the Deepor Beel, Assam

On Wednesday morning we were very saddened to hear that a young male elephant had been found dead on the railway tracks in the Deepor Beel region of Assam, India. This is a notorious accident hotspot for elephants crossing the railway line, and is exactly the same area where just two months ago an Elephant Family and Wildlife Trust of India patrol had saved fifteen elephants. The measures to prevent accidents are definitely working, but this latest accident highlights that such deaths will still occur if trains continue to pass through prime elephant habitat, and unless the state authorities also do more to alleviate the situation.

The Deepor Beel is a large permanent freshwater lake, in a former southern channel of the Brahmaputra River, which is recognised as an internationally important wetland. A 7km railway line runs alongside the beel, separating it from the surrounding forest. Elephants therefore regularly cross the tracks between the two, most often during the night. Unfortunately it is a very busy route for trains, and it is impossible to stop them running during the night. The area has therefore received some of the most intensive effort to prevent accidents. Elephant Family and the Wildlife Trust of India run patrols through the night – from 6pm to 6am – in collaboration with the forest and railway departments, and signboards (above left) have been installed to alert drivers. When elephants begin to move nearby, the night patrols immediately alert the railway stationmaster who sends the message to all trains passing through the section. The trains then substantially reduce their speed and continuously sound their whistle as they pass; in extreme circumstances they will stop to let the elephants pass. The patrols meanwhile drive the elephants away from the tracks with searchlights and occasionally fire-crackers. Such simple measures have prevented at least 55 potential accidents along this stretch over the past year.

Heavy rains in the early hours of Wednesday morning are believed to have hampered the efforts of the night patrol, reducing visibility and cutting sound. It was under such conditions that the young male is believed to have been struck at about 1am, in a section where the track curves sharply, impairing visibility further still, and where steep embankments have also been shown to trap elephants. The Wildlife Trust of India has been lobbying to have the embankments leveled, and so perhaps this latest incident will now galvanise the Ministry of Environment and Forests or Indian Railways to release the funds required.

Three elephants are now thought to have been killed on India’s railways so far this year, two in Assam, and one in Tripura. At least this is fewer than in previous years, and so Elephant Family and the Wildlife Trust of India have more resolve than ever to reinforce their efforts throughout the country.

Elephants Remain a Hot Topic for CITES

Last week the 61st meeting of the CITES Standing Committee took place in Geneva, Switzerland, and once again the discussions on elephant conservation remained the most controversial. CITES – or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora to give it its full name – was established in the 1970s to oversee international trade in wildlife and wildlife products, and to ensure that the survival of wild animals and plants is not threatened as a result. As such, when it became clear that the trade in ivory was decimating African elephants in the 70s and 80s, CITES members intervened with a number of measures, ultimately banning the international trade in ivory in 1989. The debate has raged ever since between those who believe that any trade in ivory encourages poaching for more, versus those who believe that some ivory (for example from confiscations and elephants that have died naturally) should be traded for the high returns that it attracts. Courting further controversy, the Standing Committee last week voted to have a closed session on elephant issues – barring conservation organisations and other observers from the conference hall – in a move that caused widespread shock and dismay. Fortunately the decision was reversed a few hours later, and the session was reopened to those that have invested such considerable resources and expertise in the issue over the years.

Prior to the meeting, Elephant Family had released The Ivory Dynasty: A Report on the Soaring Demand for Elephant and Mammoth Ivory in Southern China, by Esmond Martin and Lucy Vigne, following their research that it had funded with The Aspinall Foundation and Columbus Zoo. The Environmental Investigation Agency meanwhile released their findings on the scale of illegal ivory available in China, with the two sets of findings complementing each other and shedding some much needed light on the problem. There was some suggestion that the release of these reports may have contributed to the request from Kuwait – representing Asia – to have the closed session; the need for discussion of documents of a sensitive nature was the cited reason. Whatever the case, the Chinese delegation allegedly used the opportunity of the closed session to attack the two sets of findings, arguing that they contradicted each other.

However, outside the conference, Wan Ziming of Beijing’s CITES office later said that he had no real problems with The Ivory Dynasty report, and appreciated the information that it provided. He gave assurances that he would personally follow up the report’s recommendations and that China would do all they can to enforce their laws. We hope they stay true to their word. The Ivory Dynasty report was widely welcomed at the meeting for providing detailed information on the scale of the problem, and will be used to help fight the trade in illegal ivory, whether this is ultimately by the Chinese government or NGOs.

In the meantime, the subsequent reversal of the decision to have a closed session on elephants will have helped to restore the credibility of CITES, whose openness and transparency was otherwise being called into question, amid fears that the move could have set a dangerous precedent when it came to the discussion of other issues.

In the end, a working group was established to review the CITES resolution on trade in elephant specimens; the Standing Committee agreed to a proposal for work towards developing a decision-making mechanism for authorising ivory trade; and Thailand was requested to submit a written report at the next Standing Committee meeting on their progress in combating the illegal trade in ivory and regulating their internal trade. There was some debate as to whether there should be a separate CITES subgroup to deal specifically with elephant issues, as proposed by the UK. It was questioned how that could sufficiently reflect everyone’s concerns, as well as to how it could be established without becoming too cumbersome, and the proposal as it stood was therefore not approved. The debate highlighted the importance of the African Elephant Action Plan that was conceived under the aegis of CITES and finalised last year, and recognised the need for an Asian Elephant Action Plan, something that was also recognised in the “New Delhi E-8 Recommendation” earlier this year. The Indian delegation therefore encouraged the Asian elephant range states to develop such a plan, and took the first steps towards this. Elephant Family welcomes and supports such an important development for Asian elephant conservation that came from last week's meeting.

More Elephant Deaths Feared on India’s Railways

It is now the post-monsoon season in India and elephants are at their most mobile as they move between feeding areas ahead of winter. Unfortunately this can bring them into contact – and conflict – with people, and see them venturing across roads and railways, putting their lives in peril. Just last Saturday another young female elephant was knocked down and killed by a train in West Bengal, and Elephant Family fears that many more will meet a similar fate unless urgent action is taken.

The incident was caused by a speeding train on the outskirts of the Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary, not far from Jalpaiguri. The sub-adult female was struck just after 7:00pm and her body was dragged almost 250m along the tracks before being pushed to the side by the engine. Once the train had eventually came to a stop, the rest of her herd returned to the tracks and surrounded her body, blocking the tracks for more than an hour until the Forest Department could drive them back into the forest.

Sadly this is not an isolated incident. This was the tenth death so far this year, on the back of the worst year on record, in which at least 19 were recorded. With India’s rapid development, railways are increasingly extending into rural areas, and tracks are being upgraded to a broader gauge, for running faster trains. As such they are becoming an increasing menace to crossing elephants, and the death toll keeps rising. Despite concerns raised by conservationists, the 168km stretch of track where last weekend’s incident occurred was upgraded to broad gauge in 2002, and since then five elephants have been killed on average every year, and many other animals besides. Two elephants were killed in this area back in June, and less than 14 months ago seven were killed by a speeding goods train on the same stretch. The ensuing outcry prompted the Railways and Forests Departments to announce a range of measures to prevent further deaths, but little has been done since. All it would take in some areas would be to enforce speed limits, or prevent trains running after dark through accident-prone areas.

Elsewhere Elephant Family and the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) have shown that other simple measures can make all the difference. Warning signs to alert train drivers in areas where elephants are prone to cross the tracks, together with patrols to check for elephants crossing the tracks at night have proved particularly effective. Such methods and others have been tried and tested at Rajaji National Park and in certain parts of Assam. Assam once had one of the worst records for elephant mortality on the railways, and while there is still a long way to go before deaths are completely eradicated, more than 100 accidents have already been averted by the Elephant Family and WTI team in the past three years. However, with elephants now at their most mobile, the team is already stretched to its full capacity, and more deaths are feared. Thanks to the recent support of the Nando Peretti Foundation we are extending some of the measures to other badly affected areas, but more support is still urgently needed to overcome the worst in certain areas, such as in West Bengal.

First Success in Stopping the Illegal Trade in Live Elephants

Last week’s CITES meeting was once again a frustrating week for elephants, with debates on how to overcome the illegal trade in ivory failing to reach any satisfactory conclusion. Yet Elephant Family can at least report significant progress on its efforts to stop the illegal trade in live elephants caught from the wild. For the first time it will now be a requirement of governments to take immediate action to stop this trade, and to report back on their efforts to do so. They can then be held to account until this trade is overcome.

Addressing the issue

Armed with some of the most recent information available on the trade in live elephants, Elephant Family went to the 62nd meeting of the CITES* Standing Committee determined to act on the issue. The plight of the Asian elephant has been overlooked in CITES discussions in recent years, while the threat of the trade in live elephants has only received fleeting references in the documents.

This year, the issue was first raised in the report of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group of the IUCN, who called for an international registration scheme for captive elephants across Asia, which would make it much harder to pass off wild caught elephants as being born in captivity.

The Israeli delegate then made the key observation that the illegal trade in live elephants did not appear in the CITES recommendations, and proposed that one of them be amended to redress this. This proposal was backed by the Indian delegation, who added that the great threats to Asian elephants had not been receiving sufficient attention until now. The proposal was duly accepted and all elephant range states are now required to take immediate action to prevent illegal trade in live elephants (in addition to ivory), and to report back on their progress.

Such decisions may seem far removed from the forests of Asia, where young elephants are still being taken from their families and brutally tamed for a life in captivity. But this simple addition of a few words to an official document could make all the difference, as governments can no longer turn a blind eye to the trade. That their efforts will be assessed provides Elephant Family and others the opportunity to develop further campaigns, and to praise or shame governments accordingly. Further information on the scale and dynamics of the trade are still required – something that Elephant Family will pursue – but this decision and greater attention on the issue should bring more of this to light.

All eyes on Thailand

Controlling the ivory trade in Thailand was another key concern for the CITES meeting, as Thailand has become one of the most significant destinations and thoroughfares for illegal ivory. Thailand’s written and verbal reports were acknowledged and appreciated by the CITES Standing Committee, but still fell short of providing any real assurance that the ivory trade is being controlled. Until sufficient measures are taken and fully reported, many will be calling for punitive measures against Thailand if they continue to fail in this regard.

Thailand will now have to report back on efforts to overcome the trade in live elephants as well, and the UK delegation seized the opportunity at the meeting to ask how Thailand is currently tackling this trade as well as ivory. In response the Thai delegation mentioned some efforts towards DNA testing for captive elephants and its network of protected areas and large ranger workforce, but otherwise stated that they could not give an exact answer at the meeting. They had earlier stated that they are revising their elephant laws to require that elephant calves are registered and micro-chipped within 60 days of birth. Such a measure has been recommended as vital in closing one of the key loopholes that allows wild caught calves to be registered as born in captivity, but more would still be required.

Elephant Family welcomed Thailand’s announcements at the meeting, while stressing that current measures to prevent the trade in live elephants in Thailand are inadequate, and that the national laws concerning captive elephants in particular are in urgent need of review. Elephant Family will get behind such a review and changes of Thailand’s laws, and will continue fighting on all fronts until young Asian elephants are no longer taken from the wild throughout their range.

Read more about Elephant Family's campaign to stop the illegal trade in live elephants here.

* CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora

Search on for missing calf as CITES takes steps to prevent illegal trade in live elephants

A breakthrough was made at the CITES* meeting in Bangkok yesterday as countries with wild elephants were called upon to prevent the illegal trade in live elephants. The CITES resolution on “Trade in Elephant Specimens” is the key document that governs international efforts to protect both Asian and African elephants, and has almost exclusively focussed on efforts to overcome the illegal trade in ivory, until now. This is the first time that the illegal trade in live elephants has been specifically addressed by this document.

This is significant progress for Elephant Family, which for some time has been calling for greater measures to prevent young Asian elephants being taken from the wild for sale. This is a cruel trade with mother elephants often being killed so that their calves can be captured; the calves are then subjected to a terrible taming process to prepare them for a life in captivity. For every one elephant calf that enters the captive market, it is estimated that at least two more will have died along the way. With their mothers, and often other family members being killed during the capture, this means that at least six elephants may have been lost from the wild for every calf that survives. As such, this trade is a serious threat to remaining populations of Asian elephants, whose numbers are already so much smaller than their larger African cousins.

Elephant Family, which is a member of the Species Survival Network, received the support of the UK government, who called for this issue to be addressed at the very start of the CITES discussions. While it was hoped that more specific requirements and details would be outlined within the resolution, this is nevertheless a significant recognition of this threat, and paves the way for it to be monitored and overcome.

The timing couldn’t have been more poignant as reports began to filter through to those at the meeting that a female elephant had been killed in Kaeng Krachan National Park, within just a few hours’ drive of Bangkok. The exact details of what happened are still being investigated, but it seems that a further elephant was injured in the same incident, and that the calf of the dead female had been taken. There are fears that the calf will be traded, if it survives.

All of these developments unraveled on the eve of National Thai Elephant Day, which is held every year, predominantly to celebrate Thailand’s captive elephant population. With greater recognition of the need to do more for Asian elephants through CITES, and the shootings in Keang Krachan a tragic reminder of the great threats they face, it would be very timely to have greater attention on Thailand’s wild elephants.

* CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora