Thai zoo deals with Kenya and Australia put on hold
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2006:
BANGKOK, MELBOURNE, NAIROBI–Two controversial
international zoo transactions involving Chiang Mai Night Safari Zoo
in Thailand may yet proceed, but as of mid-July 2006 were both on
Fast-tracked by the national governments of Thailand,
Australia, and Kenya, both animal exchanges were derailed by rising
public skepticism about the humaneness of keeping wildlife in
Activist pressure in each case eventually exposed alleged
self-interested dealing by Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and
Chiang Mai Night Safari Zoo director Plodprasop Suraswadi, who
previously served as both fisheries minister and wildlife minister,
but lost both positions amid allegations of facilitating wildlife
Both Thaksin and Plodprasop were sued on June 7, 2006 by the
Love Chiang Mai network, for allegedly improperly creating the Night
Safari Zoo in a national park.
Nairobi High Court Justice Joseph Nyamu on July 4, 2006
delayed until September 25 hearing arguments on the legality of
exporting Kenyan animals to the Night Safari Zoo. Nyamu in December
2005 issued a temporary injunction blocking the exports, and has
repeatedly extended it.
Thaksin Shinawatra and Kenyan President Mwai Kbaki inked a
memorandum of understanding that purportedly made the deal official
on November 9, 2005.
“Thaksin has asked us about putting up a hotel here in Kenya
and we are considering his application just like any other investor,”
Kenyan Tourism and Wildlife Minister Morris Dzoro told a press
conference in Nairobi on June 28, 2006.
Thaksin denied that he has any personal economic interest in Kenya.
Only days after the November 2005 wildlife deal was
announced, Plodprasop Suraswadi generated outrage in both Thailand
and Kenya by disclosing his intent to open a restaurant at the Night
Safari Zoo that would serve dog meat and the meat of lions, tigers,
elephants, and giraffes.
As the transaction was originally structured, Kenya was to
send the Chiang Mai Night Safari Zoo as many as 300 animals of
approximately 30 species, including elephants, hippos, rhinos,
and lions. The deal was scaled back to involve about 100 animals,
chiefly zebras, giraffes, and gazelles.
Meanwhile, eight elephants scheduled for export from
Thailand to the Taronga Zoo and Melbourne Zoo in Australia were
instead kept in quarantine at Mahidol University in Kanchanaburi
province, after activists blockaded their exit on June 6, 2006.
“The elephants were in separate trucks, waiting to be driven
to Bangkok airport for the flight to Australia,” reported Agence
France-Presse. “But Soraida Salwala, founder of the Thai group
Friends of the Asian Elephant, stepped in front of the lead truck,
blocking its way. Ms. Soraida was joined by another activist,” Ms.
Pinan Chotirojseranee, “and about 20 students gathered farther out
on the road in support of her cause, she said.”
Hearing of the protest on television, Nobel Peace Prize
nominee Sulak Silvaraksa drove to the scene from Bangkok to lend his
support. Reinforced first by about 50 students from the Kanchanaburi
Children’s Village school and Moo Ban Dek alternative school, then
by about 15 local villagers, the blockade grew overnight and for
most of the next day.
“The tableau remained frozen for more than 24 hours, until
finally an order came from the highest level of the Thai government
to unload the elephants,” reported the Melbourne Age.
The elephants “were to have been taken to Bangkok by trailer
and flown to the Cocos Islands for three months’ [additional] quarantine,” before entering Australia, explained Peter Alford of
The Australian. “The Australian government lost a $500,000
(Australian) deposit on a cargo plane that left Bangkok empty,”
The Bangkok Nation put the cost of the missed flight at $1.7
The Taronga Zoo was left with a new $40 million (Australian)
elephant habitat, but no elephants.
The governments of Thailand and Australia contend that the
eight elephants slated for export were captive-born and were formerly
used for logging and tourist rides.
Friends of the Asian Elephant has argued since August 2005
that at least three of the elephants were illegally captured from the
wild, and has repeatedly asked the Thai government to order DNA
tests that could prove the elephants’ parentage.
Exporting wild-caught elephants would be in violation of the
United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered
Thai National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation
Department chief Damrong
Phidet pledged on June 6 to investigate the allegation, but
both Thai and Australian officials declared later that DNA testing
would not be necessary because paperwork–which Friends of the Asian
Elephant has claimed all along is inaccurate–established that the
elephants were born in “elephant shelters.”
Piyaporn Wongruang of the Bangkok Post reported on June 30
that Australia and Thailand were planning an expedited transfer of
the elephants in semi-secrecy, to avoid more activist attention.
The attempted export of elephants, who are the national
symbols of Thailand, “has coincided with a huge celebration of Thai
nationhood,” noted the Melbourne Age. “The streets are awash with
yellow for the 60th anniversary of the ascension to the throne of
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the longest-serving monarch in the world,”
who is known as an animal advocate.
“The Thai government is locked in political limbo,” the Age
continued, “after the April 2 election results were declared void.”
Prime Minister Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party and four other
parties are reportedly at risk of being dissolved by the national
Constitutional Court for alleged election fraud.
The Thai elephant export “was to have been the first stage of
a swap between Thailand and two zoos in Australia,” recounted Jan
McGirk of The Independent. “In exchange, more than 100 kangaroos
and other marsupials,” of 21 species, “were to be shipped to the
Chiang Mai Night Safari Zoo.”
The first of the Australian animals, four koalas, was
delayed for four to six weeks in July by the Australian Department of
Environment & Heritage “because they thought Thai veterinarians
needed more training in treatment for sick koalas,” wrote Kultida
Samabuddhi of the Bangkok Post.
“The delay has nothing to do with the protest against the
export of the Thai elephants to Australian zoos. This is not a case
of tit-for-tat,'” an Australian embassy spokesperson insisted.
The elephant export to Australia, if completed, involving a
bull and seven young cows, would notably boost the dwindling captive
Asian elephant population.
About 52,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild, scattered
across southern Asia. As many as 6,500 are captive in Asia,
including 2,700 in Thailand and more than 3,000 in India, kept as
work animals, temple attractions, or in zoos.
About 500 Asian elephants are in U.S. zoos and circuses, but
most are aging females, who were imported in much greater numbers
than males back when imports were unrestricted. Asian elephants
occasionally reproduce in captivity, but captive breeding has failed
to sustain the U.S. captive population.
The career of Rosamond Gifford Zoo general curator Chuck
Doyle is in microcosm the story of Asian elephant reproduction in
U.S. zoos. An elephant specialist, Doyle in April 2006 was
promoted to succeed 13-year director Anne Baker, who left to head
the Toledo Zoo.
“Doyle helped develop the zoo’s international reputation for
its Asian elephant breeding program, one of the most successful in
North America,” enthused Syracuse Post-Standard staff writer Mark
The Gifford Zoo has raised four baby elephants during Doyle’s
tenure. However, in early November 2005 the USDA Animal & Plant
Health Inspection Service fined the zoo $10,765 for two alleged
violations of the Animal Welfare Act, said to have contributed to
the accidental drowning of a four-day-old elephant calf named Kedar
on August 4, 2005, when other young elephants jostled him into deep water.
Among Doyle’s first moves as Gifford Zoo director was to
transfer two of the zoo’s six Asian elephants to African Lion Safari,
near Chicago. This was supposed to lower the stress on a pregnant
elephant named Romani–but her calf was stillborn anyway.
Doyle hopes to get the nod from Onandaga County to build a
$4.5 million expanded elephant exhibit. “The key is space,” he told
Weiner. “We need it.”
The Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester recently completed a $4.4
million African elephant habitat expansion, to house resident adult
females Genny C. and Lilac plus a calf Genny C. was bearing–but
Genny C. miscarried in March 2006.
Space enough to keep young elephants safely is also the issue
for Bamboo, 39, an elephant brought to the Woodland Park Zoo in
Seattle from Thailand in 1967.
Conflicting with Hansa, 5, who was born at the Woodland
Park Zoo, Bamboo was transferred in mid-2005 to the Point Defiance
Zoo in Tacoma, which has successfully kept many other elephants of
difficult disposition and history.
“But the other elephants in Tacoma didn’t accept Bamboo, and
the elephant returned to Seattle on June 12,” summarized Seattle
Post-Intelligencer reporter Kathy Mulady.
To protect Hansa, Bam-boo is kept apart from the other
Woodland Park elephants.
The Northwest Animal Rights Network has alleged in a lawsuit
that the zoo is violating the federal Endangered Species Act and
Washington state Environmental Policy Act by “failing to provide
Bamboo space for roaming, foraging and bonding with other
elephants,” wrote Mulady. NARN argues that Bamboo should be sent to
the 2,700-acre Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee.