Dear colleagues and friends,
On 17 July, Disneyland in
Anaheim in the US celebrated its 50th anniversary. The US$30 billion
entertainment powerhouse Walt Disney Co has not only left an oversized
imprint on American culture - influencing everything from family
entertainment to shopping malls to corporate branding-, it has also
permeated global tourism culture. Today, its parks in the US, in Tokyo
and Paris attract many million tourists annually. The tourist-oriented
theme park industry modeled on Disney has become a multi-million dollar
business. Moreover, the corporate tourism industry tends to turn all
cultural and natural attractions into Disney-style products for tourist
consumption. Indeed, "Disneyfication" is now reaching even the
most remote communities and wilderness areas.
I was still surfing the
Internet for commentaries about Disneyland's birthday, when local
newspapers reported that the Thai government is spending some US$50
million to turn three provinces in northern Thailand into a cultural
theme park to rival Disneyland, scheduled to open in Hong Kong in
September. This just reflects the enormous influence of Disneyland,
which has the potential to significantly change tourism flows of entire
regions. Worried about a possible decrease of visitor arrivals, the
otherwise prude Singaporean government has recently approved the
establishment of casino resorts, arguing this was the best way to lure
tourists who would otherwise turn to Hong Kong, attracted by Disneyland.
Tourism and Sports Minister Somsak Thepsuthin suggested that more
tourist attractions must be developed in Chiang Mai, Lamphun and Mae
Hong Son provinces, with the aim of competing with Hong Kong. Thai
tourism promoters' infatuation with Disney's successes is well-known:
Whereas Disneyland has been dubbed the "Happiest Place on
Earth", the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has been selling
the whole country as a theme park and is currently running a campaign
called "Happiness on Earth".
"We can actually
compete with Hong Kong's Disneyland by using our products - the Lanna
way of life, the northern culture and locally made products and
handicrafts," Somsak said. According to the TAT, new products in
"Lannaland"* include health tours, spa treatments and natural
hot springs. The agency is also campaigning to boost golfing tours, agro
tours, herb and animal farms and adventure and cultural tours, including
"hill tribe" tours.
But the prime attraction in
Lannaland will be the Chiang Mai Night Safari, a project dreamed up by
Prime Minister Taksin Shinawatra. Its managers claim this park will be
even bigger and more beautiful than HK Disneyland, while - ironically -
linking it to "ecotourism" promotion in the area.
Italian author Umberto Eco,
as well as other critics, suggested that Disneyland is "the
Absolute Fake". And so is the Night Safari park, which has caused
protests from the environmental community all along. The project has
been partly built in a protected area and it is light years away from
promoting genuine Lanna culture. The animal park threatens to pollute
Chiang Mai's water sources, and it is feared that a construction boom
will follow, including the construction of a cable car system that has
been fought by local residents for almost 20 years. More recently,
international organizations have condemned Thailand for trafficking
wildlife from Kenya and Australia, to fill the Night Safari park with
"exotic" animals such as white rhinos and koalas.
The stories in today's
Clearinghouse are to highlight the deplorable trade in animals and the
Disneyfication of wildlife for tourism purposes. Following an editorial
in The Nation that calls for an end of the inhumane wildlife trade, we
have two background reports by Bangkok Post journalist Supradit
Kanwanich - on the questionable animal swapping deals and the
controversy around the Chiang Mai Night Safari project.
Tourism Investigation &
Monitoring Team (tim-team) Thailand
* Note: Lanna literally means "one million rice fields"; Lanna is also the
name of an ancient Kingdom located on what is today northern Thailand and
renowned for its own unique culture
EDITORIAL: END INHUMANE WILDLIFE TRADE
The Nation, published on July 24, 2005
Controversial elephant deal with Australia belies even worse abuses fuelled
by greed and corruption
The elephant-exchange deal between Thailand's Zoological Park Organisation
(ZPO) and two Australian zoos has drawn the ire of wildlife-conservation
activists in both countries. However, the crux of the dispute is much more
than hair-splitting technicalities over the prohibition of cross-border trade in wild animals under the Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (Cites). It highlights Thailand's
shabby record with regard to its own indigenous wildlife.
The deal finally got the green light from Canberra last week, and eight elephants currently housed in Kanchanaburi will soon be on their way to
Sydney's Taronga Park Zoo and the Melbourne Zoo.
The "exchange" has been condemned by wildlife groups in both countries, who
say the elephants should remain in their native habitat and not be sent abroad. Local activists say the agreement is linked to a bilateral
animal-exchange accord signed in Canberra last year and to arrangements to
secure Australian animals for the Chiang Mai Night Safari, a pet project of
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who hails from that northern city.
Thailand is a signatory to Cites. Elephants are listed as an endangered species, and trade is allowed only under exceptional conditions, such as
for scientific study.
Ian Campbell, Australian minister for the environment and heritage, said
the approval was consistent with both the Australian Environment Protection and
Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999 and Cites. He insisted that the elephant importation would be part of a
breeding programme that represents Australia's contribution to the preservation of the species.
But wildlife activists claim the justification cited by Canberra was an afterthought and a dishonest move to get around Cites, as the original plan
was to acquire the animals simply for exhibition at the two public zoos in
The transaction calls for a cash payment and in-kind contributions from Australia in the form of 10 indigenous Australian species,
koalas, kangaroos and other marsupials. Conservationists say they fear that such a move could
set a dangerous precedent.
It is an important debate, because of the treasured status here of elephants
and the reality that Thailand has difficulty managing their welfare. The
Kingdom has about 3,000 captive elephants and 1,600 in the wild, but their
natural habitat has dwindled.
At present, most domesticated elephants are used for taking tourists on jungle treks or performing in shows. Unfortunately, many, along with their
mahouts, are out of work and must roam the streets of Bangkok and other
cities, begging for their keep.
The elephant deal is done, but many other dubious and troubling animal
"exchanges" are looming, and they have the potential to generate far
Thailand needs to get its priorities straight. There is no denying that Thailand is a flagrant offender of Cites rules and has consistently failed
with wildlife-conservation programmes, thanks to the widespread corruption
that fosters the notoriously lax law enforcement.
Meanwhile, Thai zoo officials are reportedly scouring the world for up to
1,500 animals for the Chiang Mai Night Safari. The most contentious deal is
with the Kenyan government, to capture 300 wild animals. Wildlife groups
everywhere have voiced outrage.
There was also news last week in a Calcutta newspaper of Thai authorities
offering wildlife officials in the northern Indian state of Assam another
"exchange": three chimpanzees and two orang utans for one male Indian
The Thai government should be very careful about trading in orang utans,
animals that are not native to Thailand, given that Indonesian officials
and wildlife groups have been lobbying for the return of dozens of them from a
private tourist facility in Bangkok. DNA tests proved beyond all doubt last
year that more than 40 orang utans at Safari World were indeed Indonesian
and not bred in captivity as claimed by the park-owner.
The government would be very wise to ease concerns about its wildlife exchanges by returning the Safari World orang utans to Indonesia as
promised and treading very carefully in its contentious animal deal with Kenya.
The following are shortened versions of articles by Supradit Kanwanich in
the Sunday Perspective Section of Bangkok Post, June 5, 2005
ANIMAL SWAPPING UNDER FIRE
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra went to Canberra in July last year to open
talks on free trade and came back with, among other things, an agreement to
exchange native animal species. Australia agreed to send 40 animals, representing eight species, notably marsupials such as koalas and
kangaroos, to Thailand. In return, Thailand promised nine young Asian elephants aged
3-8 years, eight females and a male, for delivery to zoos in Australia and
Included among the animals designated to be sent packing off to Thailand
were two pairs of koalas, an aboreal marsupial species. One pair is supposed
to be housed at the Chiang Mai Zoo and another pair to be exhibited at the
Chiang Mai Night Safari, which is now under construction.
However, the animal exchange plan was put on hold in response to pressure
from several international animal welfare groups, who said they were puzzled
over the logic of the deal and were asking for clarification of the
There has been similar opposition to another animal swap approved at high
government levels. When Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki visited Thailand in
October last year, a deal was made calling for Kenya to provide more than
300 animals, including African elephants, hippos, lions and rhinos. In
exchange, Thailand would offer some Asian tigers along with expertise in
pachyderm training. The Kenyan government wants Thai mahouts to train elephants to take part in tourism promotion and also to help in
human-elephant problems, such as in the control of wild animals that stray
The African animals sent to Thailand under the deal were supposed to be captured in February from Kenyan national parks and wildlife reserves and
sent to the Chiang Mai Night Safari.
But no sooner was this deal announced than it drew an uproar from African
and international NGOs concerned with wildlife welfare and conservation,
who said they wanted to meet with acting Kenyan Tourism and Wildlife Minister
Raphael Tutu to discuss the donation of the animals. They were unhappy with
their government for the failure to consult them and wanted the minister to
explain the criteria used in arriving at the number of animals involved and
what the country stood to gain and lose.
The opposition included the Born Free Foundation, Care for the Wild, Youth
for Conservation, Friends of the Nairobi National Park and the World Society
for the Protection of Animals. The groups argued that keeping the animals in
zoos would adversely affect their welfare and also that Thailand is among
the countries that does not respect international conventions regarding endangered animals and could not be trusted to protect them.
Some animal welfare groups in London and Switzerland have said that zoos in
Asia are in general below the accepted international standards. There have
also been criticisms of the Night Safari, which was the brainchild of the
prime minister himself.
Tremendous steps backwards
The animal exchange also faces stiff condemnation from the Pan Africa Sanctuaries Alliance (Pasa), an umbrella body for wildlife organisations in
In his letter in January to Kenya Wildlife Services director Julius
Kipng'etich, Pasa spokesperson Doug Cress said Pasa and other conservationist groups were shocked and dismayed at the move to donate
rhinos and other wildlife in exchange for tigers and elephant trainers. He
said that the proposed deal, which presumably was arranged to boost political relations as well as trade and tourism prospects with Southeast
Asia, was a tremendous step backward for Kenyan conservation and will ultimately damage Kenyan tourism, perhaps fatally.
Pasa plans to lobby for more international support to block the deal. Cress
said that similar exchanges between East African and Southern Asian governments had been attempted in the past and each prompted international
criticism and condemnation.
Acting Minister Tuju has said that the plans to donate animals to Thailand,
including some on the endangered list such as the white rhino, cheetah and
lion, had not been finalised and the Kenyan cabinet had yet to decide whether or not to honour the pledge. He added that the animals could
only be donated as a gift from the government.
The minister admitted that the Thai government had requested the animals
and said there was nothing wrong with giving them a few of those species which
were in abundance in exchange for returns that will directly benefit the
Trade doesn't meet requirements
Concerning the proposed Thai-Australian animal swap, the International Fund
for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty
to Animals (RSPCA) Australia and the Humane Society International (HSI) issued a joint statement saying that a consortium of zoos _ led by the
Melbourne Zoo, Sydney's Taronga Zoo and the Auckland Zoo _ was refusing to
reveal information given to the Australian government about its permit application to house the elephants.
The animal welfare groups oppose the importation of the nine Asian elephants
and say the permit should be refused because it does not meet the requirements of the Australian Commonwealth Environmental Protection and
Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999 and that, furthermore, they could not
understand why the zoos would not provide them with the information they
have asked for.
In a petition to Australia's Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Ian
Campbell, demanding that he reject the zoo's application to import the
elephants, the conservation coalition said the animals would suffer a myriad
of physiological and psychological problems caused by poor living conditions
and the Australian zoos' lack of experience in breeding Asian elephants.
HSI also launched a campaign to e-mail Minister Campbell asking him to refuse to
allow the import of the elephants.
Under Australia's strict laws, zoos are not allowed to import endangered
species like Asian elephants purely for exhibition. That's why the zoos have
put forward a breeding program to justify the imports.
Conservationists say of the zoo's breeding plans that elephants very rarely
breed in zoos and suffer high rates of infant mortality. Experts have predicted that the breeding programme would not generate enough
offspring to make it viable. The zoos have publicly admitted that they would not be
releasing any elephants they did manage to breed to the wild.
Why must they be caged?
Miss Soraida Salwala, a prominent elephant conservationist in Thailand and
secretary-general of the Friends of the Asian Elephant, told Sunday Perspective that Thai elephants belong to Thailand and the Thai people.
"They (domestic Thai elephants) are acclimated to Thailand and roam freely
with their mahouts. Why must they be caged for public viewing?" she asked.
She said it's not sensible to take 3-8 year old elephants for the breeding
project when there has never been any viable research done to justify it.
She said she accepted that both domestic and wild elephant populations in
Thailand were diminishing due to deteriorating natural habitats, but that
breeding programmes should only be managed in Thailand in a natural
setting. She said there were only about 2,600 domestic elephants and about 2,000
wild elephants remaining in Thailand, but through proper management,
replenishing the natural food and water resources for the elephants could be done.
"We're campaigning to stop human trafficking, but animal trafficking should
also be stopped, legal or illegal. The young elephants are like our children," she [said].
Suraphol Duangkhae, secretary-general of Wildlife Foundation of Thailand,
said that he believes most of the young elephants earmarked for the trade to
Australia were illegally trapped and that the exchange of rare animals for
commercial purposes was no longer acceptable. He added that the relationship
between animal dealers and zoo operators was quite close and that the zoos
are profit-making organisations that rely on political and special interest
groups. He said most zoos would go to any lengths to find exotic animals to
attract the public, but hardly educate people about the importance of wildlife and preserving natural habitats.
CHIANG MAI NIGHT SAFARI PROJECT OPENING FUELS CONTROVERSY
Prime Minister Taksin Shinawatra, after visiting the Singapore Night Safari,
had an idea that Chiang Mai should have such a tourist attraction to accommodate local and foreign wildlife lovers. He appointed Dr Plodprasop
Surasvadi, the former permanent secretary of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, to supervise the establishment of the Chiang Mai
Night Safari Project (CMNSP). Bernard Harrison and Friends Ltd. of
Singapore, the designers of the Singapore park, were also commissioned to
design the Chiang Mai project, at a cost of around 20 million baht. Construction began in 2003 and the park is scheduled to open late this year
or early next year.
The CMNSP site is located at the outskirts of the Doi Suthep-Pui National
Park, another major natural tourist attraction. The project area covers about 725 rai [1 rai=1,600 square metre] in Hang Dong and Muang
districts of Chiang Mai. The average altitude is 546 metres above mean sea level.
The main objective of the project is to create a world class night zoo for
Thai and foreign tourists, the first in Thailand and only the third in the
world. The first was in Singapore and the second in Guangzhou, China. There
may soon be a fourth built in Malaysia.
Another objective was to develop eco-tourism in the area around the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. It's also hoped that the park will be an
important mechanism to promote public awareness and understanding of wildlife
The predominant architectural style is of the Lanna period. The park will
boast a reception hall with a natural education centre, souvenir shops and
several types of restaurants. After viewing northern Thai classical dance
performances, at dusk tourists will be taken in 80-seat opened-sided trams
to the first of the 3-part safari, the Savannah Safari, which is set on about 375 rai. Here visitors can see animals in the open field _ African
elephants, tapirs, giraffes, zebras, ostriches, hyenas and even white
rhinos. There will also be about 50 elephants for riding.
The second part of the safari is the Predator Prowl, set on about 187
rai. Tourists will be taken in closed air-conditioned trams to see carnivorous
animals such as lions, tigers, Asiatic black bears, jackals, wild dogs and
The last part is Swan Lake, on about 62.5 rai, where mute swans and whooping
swans are on display. The lake is surrounded by the Jaguar Trail, which will
be travelled mostly by South American animals such as the Brazilian
tapir, sloth bear and small clawed otter.
The project is being built with state funds, but after the seventh year at
the latest is meant to be self-sustaining. There will be about 102 full-time
personnel and 56 part- time. Locals will be given priority for
employment. The project investment was about 1.3 billion baht, while the profits of the
project in the first year are estimated to be about 232 million baht.
NOTE: The articles
introduced in this Clearinghouse do not necessarily represent the views
of the Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team (tim-team).
by Scott Jones
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