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BACKGROUND INFOMATION

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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.

Similarly, Thailand's 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.

Yours truly,

Anita Pleumarom

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


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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 Australia.

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 greater controversy.

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 rhino.

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.

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BACKGROUND REPORTS

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 New Zealand.

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 details.

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 into farmlands.

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 Africa.

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 people.


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 conservation.

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 crocodiles.

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).

 

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