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Dozens of elephants from Laos are being illegally bought by China to be displayed in zoos and safari parks across the country, according to wildlife investigator and film-maker Karl Ammann.
According to Ammann, so-called captive elephants in Laos sell for about £23,000 before being walked across the border into China by handlers or “mahouts” near the border town of Boten.
Ammann and his crew stumbled on the illicit trade between Laos and China earlier this year, while investigating the sale of 16 Asian elephants from Laos to a safari park in Dubai. None of the elephants had the necessary permits for export.
“We then looked into the background of these elephants and met with several of the owners of the elephants, as well as the local agent who arranged this sale,” explains Ammann.
Many mahouts told Ammann on camera that their elephants are captive-bred but have been sired by a wild bull elephant.
Almost 100 Asian elephants are believed to have been sold from Laos to China over the past couple of years. Chunmei Hu, an animal welfare advocate in China, says she has already established that six zoos – all government-owned – have a confirmed 38 elephants from Laos, with 50 more likely to be Laotian.
Laos does not have a single Cites-approved breeding facility, however, and, Ammann says, the transactions have been commercial. Some zoos have paid Chinese middlemen up to 10 times as much as the latter paid owners in Laos.
Elephants are a popular and renumerative attraction at Chinese circuses, zoos and safari parks – they are still expected to perform in some places, although this is increasingly controversial.
This would not be the first time Laos had breached Cites requirements. In July last year, the Cites secretariat highlighted “gaps in implementation under Article XIII of the convention” and recommended that Laos improve its compliance ability and law enforcement of illegal wild animal and plant trafficking.
One of the measures available to Cites is to recommend that wildlife trade is suspended with Laos, says John Scanlon, the Cites secretary general. But he adds that the measure is used only “as a last resort, as our primary goal is to work with and assist Cites parties in the effective implementation of the convention”.
A Cites technical committee is in Laos at the moment to verify the country’s progress. Scanlon adds: “Our comment on the alleged export of Asian elephants from Laos will entirely depend on the nature of the trade and details of the particular transaction.”
Ammann is sceptical that action will be taken.
While Laos still has considerable distance to go in stopping the trade, Ammann believes that China also needs to be held accountable.