BANGKOK: — A committed environmentalist since her student days, Janpai Ongsiriwittaya has become known for her efforts in trying to save elephants and put an end to the ivory trade that causes thousands of pachyderms to lose their lives every year.
The leader of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Thailand’s campaign to stop the illegal wildlife trade, Janpai is determined to push government to totally eradicate ivory sales rather than just bring them under control.
Janpai regards environmental issues as being of great importance to human security, something that affects us all regardless of background, gender or identity.
“Every individual has the right to live in a healthy environment,” she says. “But if you need fresh air, you need to protect it as well.
“We have regulations but these are implemented without embracing the genuine notion of environmental protection. The end result is that offenders face only small punishments when it comes to environmental issues,” the 32-year-old law graduate adds.
Janpai’s interest in pro bono work was kindled while she was studying law at Chulalongkorn University. Back then, she assisted lawyers in helping victims defend their cases in court.
“I quickly saw that not every case was successful in making the justice system responsive to the victim. Some victims were fortunate enough to win their cases as they had good lawyers but others lost simply because they failed to demonstrate sufficient proof.”
After graduating, Janpai headed to the US to pursue a master’s degree in environmental law and bone up on how she could help those whose lives were being ruined by environmental degradation.
During her time in Washington DC, she read Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” closely followed the work of Wangari Maathai – a 2004 Nobel peace prize laureate from Kenya who has contributed to sustainable development in her country – and it inspired her to join the World Wildlife Fund as a campaign leader.
“It was exactly what I was looking for – a workplace where policy and legal aspects are linked and can make real impact on society,” says Janpai.
Returning to Thailand in 2010, Janpai was forced to face up to the fact that the majority of her countrymen had little interest in environmental concerns.
“There were also very few places where these people could receive information about the issue,” she notes.
The WWF Thailand thus set out to create a platform where the public and concerned parties – both public and private sector – could hold constructive dialogue and find a solution to the problems.
“We are trying to bridge the gap between theory and practice by encouraging people to speak,” she explains.
The WWF-Thailand’s “Chor Chang Can Save Elephants” campaign is a case in point. This programme aims to increase awareness about the current situation of the ivory trade in Thailand and is conducted through several different channels from social media to events in public areas. Tens of thousands of celebrities, journalists, artists as well as the public and private sectors have joined the activities.
On the same topic, another project recently developed by World Wildlife Fund has also drawn the interest of more than a million Internet users, who have signed to join “Chang Bunchuay” campaign.
The campaigners invite all people who are interested to join the activity to symbolically remove the letter “Chor Chang” from their names – the letter “chor chang” being the Thai alphabet equivalent of “E for elephant”.
“Our first goal is to achieve a nationwide ban in the ivory trade and to reach the point where the general public expresses its commitment to stop this sort of activity,” Janpai says.
The issue came even more into the public eye in 2013 when Thailand played host to the Sixteenth Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meeting to curb the problem of trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora, and was urged by CITES members to live up to expectations in dealing with the ivory trade.
According to Janpai, the Thai government and the CITES secretariat in Geneva have been discussing these issues for almost 10 years, with Thailand repeatedly pledging to curb trade but failing to take any concrete action. Last year, however, the government started to tackle the problem more seriously.
“Failure to comply with the CITES international convention could result in the sanction of certain Thai agricultural and animal products,” she says.
Janpai and her team set out on their mission to convince by meeting different government officials from all levels.
“We approached all the concerned parties with goodwill and undertook to assist them in completing some tasks that were apparently difficult for the government,” she says.
Thailand has now made significant moves towards controlling ivory smuggling through the enactment of several laws. These include the 1992 Amendment of certain provisions under the Wild Animals Reservation and Protection Act preventing the illegal possession of wildlife specimens, carcasses and wildlife products as well as the enactment of 17 Subordinate Laws, namely regulations under the Interior Ministry’s Beasts of Burden Act to prescribe a new form of Elephant Identification Certificate. Each elephant’s identification information and scientific information (such as DNA) would be stored in digital microchip form in order to prevent the registration of smuggled wild elephants as domesticated ones.
The latest law – the 2015 Ivory Trade Act – can be credited directly to WWF’s efforts. It controls the trade, import, export and possession of ivory and ivory products originating from domesticated elephant ivory.
“We have come a long way from where we started,” says Janpai, who has been responsible for the project for two and a half years, adding that government agencies have used the platform created by WWF to work in a more coordinated manner.
Thailand will have to submit another report to CITES on March 31 to inform them of the improvements.
With a satisfactory awareness of the issue now achieved, Janpai will be putting her efforts to completely stamp out the illegal ivory trade as well as other threats to the environment.
“More regulations along with tougher punishments will need to be implemented in order to halt and do away with practices that endanger the environment and biodiversity,” she says.