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Big game

  • Written by  Geographical
  • Published in Wildlife
Big game
14 Aug
Illegal hunting may have gotten headlines recently with the death of Cecil the lion, but as Geographical’s exclusive investigation shows, the real problem with wildlife poaching is taking place at an institutional level

At the huge Rong Kluea market on the Thai-Cambodian border, shoppers ride golf carts peering at piles of fake-branded sports shoes and Miyake handbags. The smell of solvents sting the hot, humid air. These border markets trade smuggled goods, and a solitary stall at the end of a row displaying tiger’s teeth on leather thongs, ivory bangles and tusks from poached elephants comes as no surprise. The vendor looks almost comical, like a regular Thai gangster; tattoos, scars, bad teeth and only one eye. The ivory bangle would set you back 12,000 baht (£220). But less comic are the tusks. They’re small, no doubt taken from an immature male. Unlike the shoes, the tusks aren’t fakes.

Recently, a gardener was arrested in Thailand after three elephants wandered into an electric fence ironically erected around a meditation centre. Two well-placed sources say the Lao army uses the same technique to kill elephants in the wild: stringing wires across well-worn elephant paths, the shock inevitably fatal. They then use freight forwarders to send tusks across the border to markets such as Rong Kluea.

With the global wealthy demanding ever more ostentatious indicators of status, and well organised criminal gangs willing to give it to them at a price, it’s no wonder that both African and Asian elephant numbers are dropping dangerously.

Ivory VientianeIvory on sale in Vientiane (Image: Geographical)


The death of Cecil the iconic lion highlighted the commodification of wildlife and the infectious neoliberal credo that you have to kill animals to save them. Social media and ego tourism have made such activities increasingly obvious to the wider world, but the endless media furore and Twitter battles rarely address the policy, criminal and ecological changes that are responsible for more deaths than a handful of publicly-shamed hunters.

Land conversion for megaprojects like mines and hydropower dams, organised gangs working on behalf of businessmen along with freelancers working for oil companies, the complicity of diplomats who park rangers claim are using their diplomatic bags to ship parts back home take far more lives each year. It’s as coldly systematised as any business and depends on corrupt officials to grease the wheels.

The UNODC Environmental Crime Unit estimates profits at US$23billion (£15billion) last year. More than the GDPs of Lao and Cambodia combined. African rangers claim that the Vietnamese put out a tender, local shooters put in bids and the lowest bid gets the job. Parts – such as tusks and bones – are then shipped through places like Lao, where the trade is managed by politically-connected elites and the Lao army.

mahout and newborn SayabouryA mahout and a newborn elephant in Sayaboury (Image: Geographical)


In April, Thai customs made the biggest illegal ivory seizure in the country’s history. Lao officials intervened to try to stop the seizure of 700 elephant tusks bound for Vientiane, the embassy insisting the container be shipped to Laos without delay.

The Bangkok Post reported: ‘Europol... said the sting was “the biggest ever coordinated international law enforcement operation targeting the illegal trade in endangered species”.’ But Lao remained uncooperative and no arrests have been made. In recent years, Laos has become a major transit point for a variety of exotic and endangered animals. As the Post says: ‘Laos, run by its secretive and authoritarian communist government, stands out as a bastion of impunity...’

On speaking to a Lao journalist and several conservation workers (all of whom requested anonymity), they all agreed with Steven Galster, the executive director of Freeland, a counter-trafficking organisation based in Bangkok who says that ‘Vietnamese and Chinese crooks are using Laos as their preferred staging and transit ground’.



Laos, once famously named Lane Xang (‘Land of a Million Elephants’) has less than 400 elephants left in the wild and another 350 in captivity and has suffered catastrophic forest destruction. Lao’s official forest data is at best unreliable, compounded by the FAO definition of forests allowing biodiversity-unfriendly plantations to be defined as ‘managed forests’.

Energy policies haven’t helped. Villages are moved like chess pieces to make way for eco-destructive hydropower projects that leave remnant forests open to exploitation via access roads and created reservoirs. Pristine hotspots become accessible shooting galleries for poachers, many of them being the relocated villagers that are finding it hard to survive on the insufficient and poor quality land allocated to them.

Development agency programs are often contradictory and lead to additional habitat destruction. More recently the Lao government, in an attempt to appease donors, declared Sayaboury and Luang Prabang as green, logging-free provinces. While prohibiting logging is laudable, critics say it targets artisanal loggers who employ elephants to drag the logs out. Hi-tech, mechanised operations have already cleaned out the high value bulk. Three-month profits from black market trade in timbers such as rosewood, has been estimated by Freeland at US$30million (£19million).

HarnessAn elephant in its harness (Image: Geographical)


Standing in the dole queue, are elephants and their mahouts [elephant handlers]. Mahouts and their families rely on income from elephants. Elephants rely on the mahouts for protection, food and reassurance. But increasingly, mahouts find the burden too much, and sell or abandon the animals, many having already worked past their breeding time. Deaths far outnumber newborns. Hence the ‘baby bonus’ scheme devised by the Sayaboury Elephant Conservation Centre.

The baby bonus offers mahouts with pregnant elephants a place at the centre for the cow to be housed, during which time the mahout gets a four-year salary. After that time, the calf is allowed to stay at the SECC, generating a further income for the mahout.

Sayaboury is home to around 75 per cent of Laos’ remaining elephants. The nearby Hongsa district was home to fifty elephants until a lignite mine was built, displacing at least three villages. Now only ten jumbos remain there.

‘If people tell me they love elephants I ask them, how are you planning to take care of them?’ The normally effusive and gregarious Taksin Phathasinh, hospitality manager at the SECC looks serious. ‘Will they stop cutting down trees, or fight with elephants for land? Will they help the mahouts by contributing to the baby bonus?’

Towards the end of this year, the SECC will stage a marathon 630 kms elephant caravan to coincide with UNESCO celebrations marking 20 years of World Heritage status in Luang Prabang. It wants to emphasise that elephants are also part of world heritage and to make the point that elephants and other mega fauna are all part of the global commons. That it’s important to focus attention in the right area. Social media outrage at individual cases is all well and good, but given the sheer scale of the fight places such as the SECC are up against, it’s increasingly clear that just signing petitions, buying T-shirts or sending retweets won’t be enough to save Lao’s elephants.

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