Archive for ‘Illegal trade of Wildlife’

October 2, 2012

Laos giving elephants to Japan ‘bad idea’

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1 Oct 2012, 7:00 am   –   Source: The Conversation

(Fie: Getty Images)

Japan has decided to import eight elephants from the secretive, communist nation of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, despite the Asian elephant being endangered, Ingrid Suter from the University of Queensland reports.

By Ingrid Suter, University of Queensland

The 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan was undeniably a tragedy on many scales. Thousands killed, tainted agriculture, disappearing tourism and overall economic gloom. It’s little wonder the Japanese government is looking for some way to lift national spirits and make life near Fukushima marginally bearable.

Japan has decided to import eight elephants from the secretive, communist nation of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

Viewed as a way to bolster national morale and happiness, the Japanese Government is expediting the “renting” of elephants from Laos. Known as “Japan-Laos Goodwill Elephants,” eight predominately young female elephants will soon be shipped from their forested and subtropical homes in north-west Laos, to the cold, concreted and caged Tohoko Safari Park, 20 kilometers outside the Fukushima evacuation zone. Well that’s where the fortunate ones will end up. Two are destined for the Kinoshito Circus, whereabouts unknown.

A mahout, mother elephant, and her calf in a captive breeding program, Sayaboury, Laos. ElefantAsia

The Asian elephant is an internationally recognised endangered species, and its outright exportation is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Fauna (CITES). However the “renting” of Asian elephants is acceptable. These eight elephants will be exported under a three-year agreement between the Japanese and Lao governments. In theory.

In practice rentals from Laos are rarely, if ever, monitored or returned home. Take for example the two young elephants “rented” to North Koreas’ Pyongyang Zoo in 2009. Only the complete naive will believe this next batch will ever return home to rural Laos.

Why the government of Japan seeks eight elephants from one of the most poverty-stricken, secretive nations in Southeast Asia is a question worth asking. Thailand, Sri Lanka and India, all signatories of CITES, have thousands more elephants than Laos; surely it makes sense to source zoo elephants from their shores?

Certainly Laos has a longstanding culture of gift-giving to show admiration and respect between nations. Certainly Japan is worthy of Lao’s admiration, being the biggest bilateral provider of development aid to this impoverished nation. But when and where must the line of gratitude end? From both conservation and economic perspectives Laos simply cannot afford to lose eight more young elephants.

Laos needs these elephants. It is not hysterical to say the future of elephants in Laos depends on them. Once officially named “the land of a million elephants”, today Laos is struggling to maintain a population of a mere 900. The Vietnam War, forest degradation and poaching have seen Asian elephant populations crash almost to the point of no return.

Elephants are not reproducing fast enough to replace their ageing population. There is only an estimated 60 domestic female elephants under the age of 35. The Government of Laos giving away elephants like goodie bags makes a mockery of national environmental policy and the conservation efforts undertaken by non-government organisations.

Hundreds of men in Laos still use elephants on a daily basis for work in remote areas where where there is a lack of alternative employment. Thousands of family members directly rely on the income earned from these elephants.

Young elephants destined for Japan would be better utilised working in the Lao eco-tourism industry, bringing much-needed income to this disadvantaged nation. They are desperately needed as reproductive ambassadors for their home nation.

Elephants play a role as reproductive ambassadors for their country in Laos, along with a big part in eco-tourism. ElefantAsia

The Japanese and Lao Governments are coordinating the elephant transfer with haste. One can assume with confidence that Lao elephants were chosen for the very same reason why in 2012 Laos remains an under-developed nation: transparency, or lack thereof. Transparency International rates Laos 154 out of 183 nations.

If you have ever lived and worked in Laos you understand the implications of this rating. On the bright side, getting out of a traffic offence is a simple matter of naming the police officer’s price (which they will happily propose). The sinister side is excessive illegal logging, rife transnational wildlife trafficking and the government constantly turning a blind-eye to environmental policy and protocol.

How Laos was ever approved as and remains a signatory to CITES is baffling. Reports continually condemn Laos as a gateway nation for the illegal smuggling of all types of contraband. Yet nothing ever seems to change. Nobody commits to tackling these issues.

When contacts at CITES are questioned, they say the Japanese-Lao elephant transfer is all above board, legitimate and lawful. However others closer to the source say CITES-Laos is not performing to international standards, making the validity of their CITES certificates highly questionable.

Scratch the surface and it’s easy to see why Japan chose eight of Lao’s young elephants and not elephants residing in democratic societies. For the Japanese government a forgotten nation’s endangered elephants is a justifiable trade-off for their people to have something cute to visit.

Ask any Lao elephant owner what they think about elephants and they will all respond in a similar fashion, “I love my elephant like he is my brother.”

Laos communities are desperate for help but in a closed nation their right to protest this exportation is non-existent. Elephant owners would love to have more elephant’s calves to continue the living cultural heritage of their ancestors.

Despite this, the Government of Laos continues giving away their elephants like they’re going out of fashion. Going out of existence is more like it.

Ingrid Suter volunteers for International Non-Government Organisation ElefantAsia.

The Conversation

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August 22, 2012

Asia’s new taste for African lion bones threatens conservation efforts

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Two-month old lion cubs shelter in a Kenyan wildlife services quarantine room in June after their mother was shot dead. Source: AFP

LION bones have become a hot commodity for their use in Asian traditional medicine, driving up exports from South Africa to the East and creating new fears of the survival of the species.

Conservationists are already angry over lion trophy hunting.

The skeletons are mostly shipped to Vietnam and Laos, feeding conservationists’ fears that the market will drive up lion poaching – just as the illegal hunting of rhinos escalates for their horns, also popular in Asian traditional remedies.

“Suddenly, and very recently, there are a great number of people from Laos who have a big interest for trophy hunting. And that had never happened in the whole history of Laos!” said Pieter Kat from conservation NGO LionAid.

Around 500 lions are hunted legally every year in South Africa, most of them from commercial lion breeding farms which also supply zoos all over the world.

Until recently hunters paid $US20,000 ($16,200 euros) just for a trophy to hang above the fireplace, and the carcass was thrown to the dogs.

But their crushed bones have become popular as substitute for the bones of tigers in love potions or “tiger wine”. Trade in tiger parts is banned under international law as the animal is a threatened species.

Now Asian hunters buy lion trophy hunting permits to get at the bones.

“They prefer hunting lionesses, whose $US4000 price tag is more affordable than the males,” said Mr Kat.

Most swear it’s about the trophy, which means safari operators and breeders can easily dispose of the carcass at the same time and make an extra buck.

A lion skeleton these days fetches up to $US10,000.

A few hundred partial or complete lion skeletons were shipped out of the country in 2010, according to latest official figures – all completely legal.

The trade started in 2008.

“That trade is monitored very, very closely by provincial officers,” said Pieter Potgieter, chairman of the South African Predator Breeders Association.

“They don’t release the bones unless they are sure that they come from a legally hunted lion or that the lion died of natural causes.”

But activists cry foul play, saying it is worsening the captive breeding of lions for what has come to be known as “canned” hunting.

‘Harvested’ for their bones

“Lions are now being specifically bred in captivity to be ‘harvested’ for their bones,” said Paul Hart, who runs a lion sanctuary in the south west of the country.

Animal rights groups also say some cats are killed off on the sly, a theory possibly supported by the nabbing of illegal exporters at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg.

Breeders are also coy about the number of lions they have on their farms. South Africa is thought to have 5000 in captivity.

But the bones of wild lions – thought to be more potent – are worth even more in Asia, which threatens the 3000 big cats left in the country’s reserves, animal rights groups say.

Around 700,000 people signed an online petition asking South African President Jacob Zuma to suspend lion bone exports from his country.

“It is just a question of time before the poachers find their way in this market and kill the lions. Why should they go and buy an expensive carcass from a breeder if they can poach it and get it for nearly nothing?” said Chris Mercer from the Campaign Against Canned Hunting.

Breeders deny the lion bone trade will spark poaching similar to that of rhinos. Almost 500 were killed last year alone for their horns, whose trade is banned.

“If lion bone is available legally, on the market, why would anyone choose to take all the risks and costs associated with poaching?

“The South African lion breeding industry can supply a lot of demand, and we can make a contribution towards the saving of the Asian tigers and also the South African lions,” said Mr Potgieter.

Groups are divided over the dilemma: maintain a legal and regulated trade in lion carcasses from animals bred in captivity or outlaw the trade and risk a spike in poaching.

Authorities, meanwhile, have remained silent.

August 2, 2012

Battle for the Mekong Heats Up

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By Tom Fawthrop

Laos’s Xayaburi dam project faces opposition throughout the region over its ecological impact.

The Mekong, a precious jewel of Southeast Asia, has become a critical battleground between hydropower dam projects and the survival of the world’s greatest freshwater fisheries.

The future of this 4,880 km (3032 miles) long river may well be decided by what happens to the Xayaburi mega-dam project in Laos, the first of a cascade of 11 dam projects on the lower Mekong.

Ame Trandem from the NGO International Rivers explained that, “The Mekong River is the lifeblood of Southeast Asia, feeding and employing millions of people. To move forward with the Xayaburi Dam would be reckless and irresponsible, as the dam would fatally impact the river’s ecosystem and fisheries.”

In spite of repeated reports that the Xayaburi dam project had been suspended pending further scientific studies, a recent visit to the dam-site has suggested that the Lao government has not bowed to international pressure. As a World Wildlife Fund analysis recently warned, “Construction work is marching ahead at the Xayaburi dam site in northern Laos and risks making a mockery of the decision last December by Mekong countries to delay building the dam on the Mekong mainstream.”

In December 2011 the four-member nations of the Mekong River Commission – Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam –agreed that no dams should be built until further scientific studies of the negative impacts on all the riparian countries had been completed.

Scientists have warned that if the 11 dams are built it could bring on an ecological disaster that harms many of the 877 Mekong fish species. Furthermore, it is the uninhibited flow of the Mekong through the heart of Southeast Asia and the river’s bountiful natural resources that guarantees 65 million people’s food security.

Although Cambodia and Vietnam are determined to stop the dam, everything indicates that the Thai developer Ch. Karnchang and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) are equally determined to build it. In this context, a failure to resolve the dam issue could also trigger a major diplomatic row among the Mekong nations, undermining the credibility of the MRC and disrupting international cooperation along the region’s most important waterway.

“The Xayaburi Dam will trigger an ecological crisis of tremendous proportions. We urge the Prime Ministers of Laos and Thailand to show leadership by cancelling this project,” Shalmali Guttal of Focus on the Global South, a member of the 263 coalition of NGOs from 51 nations said in a statement condemning the damn.

In response to this opposition, Lao Foreign Minister, Thongloun Sisoulithmade announced during last month’s ASEAN FM summit that his country was suspending work on the Xayaburi dam until further studies on its impact could be done. Although opponents of the dam welcomed Vientiane’s announcement, they soon were disappointed.

Soon after the Lao government’s announcements, a number of diplomats, MRC officials, experts, and donors visited Laos to see the site. After the visit some MRC observers then asserted that, “the project is in an advanced preparation stage with exploratory excavation in and around the river completed.”

Similarly, International Rivers concluded in their own unofficial investigation of the dam-site in June, that, “the dredging and widening of river has already taken place.”

Meanwhile back in Bangkok, Ch.Karnchang, the Thai developer of the US$3.8 billion project, said the dam was going ahead with no delays in the original timetable.

Initial construction has evidently started, however. Has the Laotian government then reneged on its international commitments?

Deputy Minister for Energy and Mines Viraphonh Viravonghas denied any violation of the MRC agreements. Instead he contended that all the construction done so far falls under the rubric of “preparatory work,” noting that the construction “does not involve permanent structures” and instead is mostly about building makeshift housing for construction workers.

But fisheries experts say that long before the river is fully blocked, existing construction will disturb the riverbed enough to significantly affect fish populations and the flow of sediments downstream.

Dr. Jian-hua Meng, a sustainable hydropower specialist working at the WWF, argues that, “This will be the first direct intervention in the riverbed, and will mark a milestone in the ongoing dam construction.”

According to a WWF report, which was strongly critical of the Dam project, Viraphonh Viravong, Laos’s Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines, contradicted the foreign minister when he allegedly told the MRC-led delegation that the project would proceed without further reviews.

Since September 2010 ongoing consultations based on the MRC regulatory framework has resulted in the Lao government trying to answer the strong objections from Cambodia and Vietnam. Unsatisfied, Vietnam has called for a 10-year moratorium on dam construction.

To answer these objections Laos appointed two foreign consultants: the Swiss –based Poyry Energy and French company CNR (Compagnie Nationale du Rhone).

Still, Cambodia and Vietnam remain convinced that any dam will block fish migration and reduce the flow of sediment.

Both foreign consultants argue that fish ladders or fish passes can enable 85% of all fish to get past the turbines and successfully swim up or down river but this claim has not been fully tested.

Indeed, many dismissed Poyry’s previous report- a compliance review of the Xayaburi Dam in 2011 regarding the consultation process with its neighbors- as lacking the necessarily scientific data.

It’s also worth noting that the Finnish-based Poyry has been blacklisted by the World Bank for unrelated corruption charges that have led the CEO to resign. This calls into question its credibility.

Very different advice to the Lao government came from the visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said last month that, “I’ll be very honest with you; We made a lot of mistakes…. We’ve learned some hard lessons about what happens when you make certain infrastructure decisions, and I think that we all can contribute to helping the nations of the Mekong region avoid the mistakes that we and others made.”

Washington is also concerned that if the Xayaburi dam goes ahead, China is lined up to build at least three more dams further down the Mekong thus penetrating ever deeper into the Mekong sub-region.

NGOs representing people from the eight provinces in northeast Thailand are about to file legal action in the courts to force the Thai government to review the contract with the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), the state’s electricity body. Thailand has agreed to buy 95% of all the power generated from the Xayaburi dam.

The Thai government has quietly endorsed the MRC consensus that further scientific study is needed. Now NGOs are demanding that  the Thai government do more and use its power to freeze the Xayaburi/EGAT contract, which in turn would pressure the Thai dam-builder Karnchang to halt the project.

According to scientists the stakes are high in this ongoing battle over sustainable development. WWF’s Dr. Jian-hua Meng has warned, for instance, that “Resting the future of the Mekong on flawed analysis and gaps in critical data could have dire consequences for the livelihoods of millions of people living in the Mekong river basin.

Tom Fawthrop is a Thailand-based journalist and producer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Al-Jazeera and the New Statesman, among other publications.

Photo Credit: CPWF Basin Focal Project

July 25, 2012

Conservation group calls for regional stance against Lao dam

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July 24, 2012 2:52 pm

Laos’ construction work on the first dam on the lower Mekong River requires a strong response from neighbouringcountries to delay the project, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said Tuesday.

Environmentalists say the Xayaburi dam in northern Laos would havedetrimental effects on wildlife and residents’ livelihoods. TheMekong River Commission, of which Laos is a member, called for theproject to be delayed by 10 years to allow environmental research, but construction and the resettlement of villages have proceeded, theWWF said.

The WWF was included in a delegation of foreign diplomats andexperts taken to the dam site last week to be briefed on the Thaicontractor’s plans to mitigate the impact on fisheries and sedimentflows.

“While Laos’ decision to host a visit to the dam site is positive,it’s clear construction is advancing,” said Jian-hua Meng, the WWF’ssustainable hydropower specialist, who joined the delegation.

The groups was told that extra money would be spent on the3.8-billion-dollar project to aid fish migration and sediment flowsin the Mekong.

But environmental groups such as International Rivers and now theWWF argued that the dam’s proposed technologies, such as fishpassages, have been untested in South-East Asian rivers.

“Nowhere in the tropics has a successful fish passage been builtfor a dam the size of Xayaburi,” said Eric Baran of the World FishCentre in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

July 25, 2012

Countries fail to protect endangered species from illegal trade

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Posted on 23 July 2012

© WWF / Martin Harvey

Geneva – Poor performances by key countries are threatening the survival of wild rhinos, tigers and elephants, a new WWF report has found. The analysis, released as governments gather in Geneva this week to discuss a range of issues related to wildlife trade, rates 23 of the top African and Asian nations facing high levels of poaching and trafficking in ivory, rhino horn and tiger parts.

The report, entitled Wildlife Crime Scorecard: Assessing Compliance with and Enforcement of CITES Commitments for Tigers, Rhinos and Elephants, examines of the many countries considered as range, transit or consumer countries for these species. It gives countries scores of green, yellow or red for each animal, as applicable, as an indicator of recent progress. WWF has found that illegal trade persists in virtually all 23 countries reviewed, but the scorecard seeks to differentiate between countries where it is actively being countered from those where current efforts are entirely inadequate.

Asian demand drives poaching

Among the worst performers is Viet Nam that received two red scores, for rhinos and tigers. Viet Nam is identified in the report as the top destination country for rhino horn, which has fuelled a poaching crisis in South Africa. A record 448 South African rhinos were killed for their horns in 2011 and the country, which itself receives a yellow for rhinos, has lost an additional 262 already this year. According to the report, many Vietnamese have been arrested or implicated in South Africa for acquiring rhino horns illegally, including Vietnamese diplomats.

“It is time for Viet Nam to face the fact that its illegal consumption of rhino horn is driving the widespread poaching of endangered rhinos in Africa, and that it must crack down on the illegal rhino horn trade. Viet Nam should review its penalties and immediately curtail retail markets, including Internet advertising for horn,” said Elisabeth McLellan, Global Species Programme manager at WWF.

Inadequate enforcement of domestic ivory markets in China is also highlighted in the report. China receives a yellow score for elephants indicating a failure by the country to effectively police its legal ivory markets. “The ongoing flow of large volumes of illegal ivory to China suggests that such ivory may be moving into legal ivory trade channels,” the report says.

China is urged to dramatically and consistently improve its enforcement controls for ivory and to communicate to Chinese nationals in Africa that anyone caught importing illegal wildlife products into China would be prosecuted, and if convicted, severely penalized.

Poaching crisis across Africa

© Panjit Tansom / TRAFFIC

Tens of thousands of African elephants are being killed by poachers each year for their tusks and China and Thailand are top destinations for illegal African ivory. Thailand receives a red score for its failure to close a legal loophole that makes it easy for retailers to sell ivory from poached African elephants.

“In Thailand, illegal African ivory is being openly sold in up-scale boutiques that cater to unsuspecting tourists. Governments will be taking up this troubling issue this week. So far Thailand has not responded adequately to concerns and, with the amount of ivory of uncertain origin in circulation, the only credible option at this stage is a ban on ivory trade,” McLellan said.

Elephant poaching is at crisis levels in Central Africa, where rhinos were likely poached to extinction. Last year witnessed the elephant highest poaching rates across the continent since records began. Early this year hundreds of elephants were killed in a single incident in a Cameroon national park. “Given the escalation of elephant poaching in Africa and the increased levels of organized crime involved in the trade, it is clear that the situation is now critical,” the report found.

Wildlife crime not only poses a threat to animals, but is a risk to people, territorial integrity, stability and rule of law. Regional cooperation is needed in Central Africa to counter the flows of illegal ivory and arms spilling across borders. WWF commends Central African governments for signing a regional wildlife law enforcement plan and urges them to make its implementation a top priority, allocating resources to the plan and improving the efficacy of prosecutions for those implicated in poaching or illegal trade.

© WWF/Bouba N’Djida Safari Lodge

“Although most Central African countries receive yellow or red scores for elephants, there are some encouraging signals. Last month Gabon burned its entire ivory stockpile, to ensure that no tusks would leak into illegal trade, and President Ali Bongo committed to both increasing protections in the country’s parks and to ensuring that those committing wildlife crimes are prosecuted and sent to prison,” said WWF Global Species Programme manager Wendy Elliott.

Best performers

Other bright spots from the report are green scores for India and Nepal for each of the three species groups. In 2011, Nepal celebrated a year without any rhino poaching incidents, which was largely attributed to improvements to anti-poaching and other law enforcement efforts.

WWF’s Wildlife Crime Scorecard is being released as member countries of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) hold their annual Standing Committee meeting. The conservation organization is set to launch a global campaign to fight illegal wildlife trade, which is putting the future of elephants, rhinos and tigers at risk. Learn more at


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