“Don’t bother – elephants are finished.”
“You must be joking. Anyway it’s India’s problem.”
“It’s big money talking, and you’ll never change that.”
“Surely the travel industry will sort it out if you ask them?”
These were amongst the unpromising responses enjoined on me after returning from my first trip to India, in 2014, to assess for myself the horrors to Asian elephants in modern tourism of which I had started hearing and, appalled, urging that something must be done.
The sad refrain had some truth: the species is indeed in desperate peril. Yes too, vested interests like the UK travel industry could do so much, and so could India and the other range states. But these are not policies if nothing is being done. And the UK cannot compel a mighty sovereign State like India, less still Sri Lanka, Thailand or Myanmar, to adopt our own ideals of elephant welfare – aside from the UK’s own cupboards rattling with skeletons like brutal industrialised farming or a legacy of trophy hunting.
India has excellent animal welfare laws, according elephants the highest degree of protection, but they are widely circumvented by political interference and protection of vested interests.
But, I thought, surely the world’s most revered species, the Asian elephant, need not – should not – meet its end under the cruellest of all animal abuse, babies screaming and crying under extreme torture to break their spirits (known as “pajan”) for easy use in tourism?
Back in London I tramped and trailed round many animal welfare organisations searching for a star to hitch my wagon to, but received reproofs. One charity urged me to be realistic and not waste time. A Government minister charged with animal welfare issues told me she had far better things to do than help elephants.
But I started receiving encouragement too, and exhortation. It was so plain that public awareness of the horrors was so low yet when people heard of them, they were as appalled as I. So in early 2015 Save The Asian Elephants was born, with an immediate strategy by every means to drive up awareness of facts omitted from all travel brochures and websites, draped over for years with a mantle of secrecy. After all, in a functioning democracy a proper cause constantly advanced, linked to coherent, credible policies, should prevail over time.
Without funds STAE developed an ethos of voluntary, unpaid help – no wages or perks for anyone, and working off the lowest cost base. Just passion and commitment.
A wonderful team of eminences and experts soon emerged from every quarter, and many others of all ages and specialisms. My childhood dreams of a veterinary career (I had spent forever in libraries poring over the lives of famous vets then seeking them out via the telephone directory hoping for inspirational meetings) were dashed when my ineptitude at sciences became evident. But later I could see my life as a lawyer having worth far beyond fighting for my clients. I was thankful others of my profession came forward to join STAE.
Policies were developed that were not contingent on concurrence of vested interests or governments of indigenous states, but on what we in the UK could achieve by relentless exposition of the facts and proper pressure upon government.
A landmark policy of STAE’s (alongside those previously outlined in Animal Spirit) is new law: to ban the advertising, promotion and sale of unethical Asian elephant-related venues. Self-regulation by the travel industry having failed, and endless promises of change broken, compulsion of law is essential to stem supply (and then demand) of the vast trade in such abuse. Shockingly, to date STAE has identified over 1,000 tour companies promoting 210 venues where extreme brutality is committed to baby and adult elephants to hundreds of thousands of UK tourists. Abused elephants regularly attack and kill. These fetid places are also a storm of risks for tourists to acquire deadly airborne viruses like Covid 19 as well as TB that broken down elephants readily transmit through coughing, sneezing and spraying water.
STAE has been in ongoing negotiation with the Prime Minister’s officials and government departments on our Asian Elephants (Tourism) Bill, drafted for Lord Zac Goldsmith. Hopes of new law soon for the UK are running high based on government assurances. Polls show STAE’s Bill is backed by 90% of Britons, confirmed by STAE’s petition and others aligned to it running at 32 million signatures, and 100 people and organisations of influence including all the major faiths of SE Asia.
STAE considers this law transposable to other countries across the West and beyond. Together they can stem this tide of abuse. And although Asian elephants suffer uniquely from abusive tourism, such law can stand adapted for other species too.
Who knows the destiny of this ancient species, denizens of the Earth long before Man? But what Man has done so wrong, he can put right. Whilst Christian precepts apply to the protection of all of God’s creation, no religious faith is needed to believe that we should stand and fight for these gentle creatures, “megagardeners of the forests” on which we all rely. We hope and pray there is time for the elephants.
Duncan McNair KHS is a lawyer and founder and CEO of Save The Asian Elephants http://www.stae.org (07852 416696).
STAE’s petition for change can be signed at: bit.ly/STAEpetition