25 January 2005

Conservationists slam wildlife swap

Nairobi - The Kenyan government plans to send hundreds of exotic and endangered animals to Thailand in a wildlife swap that drew harsh criticism on Monday from conservationists and concern from tourism officials.

Under the deal, Kenya is to trade more than 300 animals - including elephants, hippos, lions and rhinos - with Thailand in exchange for a small number of Asian tigers and pachyderm training expertise, officials said.

The swap was arranged last year during a visit to Thailand by Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki but had attracted little notice until animal welfare campaigners got wind of the arrangement and protested.

An official from the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) said the animals, from about 30 different species, are to be captured from national parks and wildlife reserves and sent to a safari park in northern Thailand starting next month.

"It's a political decision that was reached when Kibaki visited Thailand in October," the official said on condition of anonymity. "In return, we shall be given a few tigers and expertise on elephant training."

However, the official added that the transfer process was likely to be delayed due to difficulties in preparing the wild animals for living in captivity abroad.

The official added that KWS animal behaviour experts had registered opposition to the trade as "transferring animals from their natural habitat to zoos affects their welfare."

Conservationists, meanwhile, expressed outrage and maintained the plan would harm the animals and efforts to protect them, and damage Kenya's tourism sector which relies heavily on wildlife safaris.

In addition, they argued, Kenya was getting a bad deal as it would receive in return a non-native species for which it has no need and the experience of Thai elephant trainers, whose methods they said are suspect.

"This is completely shocking," said respected wildlife expert Daphne Sheldrick, who has worked in the field in Kenya for more than 50 years.

"Wildlife in Kenya is under pressure from poachers and sport hunters, this government is completely ignorant of the kind of mess it is getting into," she said.

"It's barbaric to transfer animals from their natural habitat to captivity, this will not go down well," Sheldrick said. "We do not need tigers, they are not indigenous animals. And training of elephants ... is abuse of animals."

The tigers will be kept in a KWS zoo pending a decision on their final home, while the Thai trainers will try to educate the local elephants - a more intractable animal than the Asian variety - into doing menial tasks.

Kenyan government officials have defended the deal, citing overpopulation of the species involved, but the state-run tourism board has also questioned the trade, noting that it would likely generate negative attention.

"There is concern that international animal welfare organisations could create some negative publicity in our overseas tourism source," said Jake Grieves-Cook said, chairperson of the Kenyan Tourism Board.

"This might have an adverse effect on our tourism image overseas," he said.

Sheldrick was more certain.

"Animal welfare is a very important aspect of tourism, the government must reverse this or the tourism sector will suffer in the arms of animal campaigners," she said.

Despite the outcry, the trade looks set to go ahead as a team of Kenyan experts left Nairobi earlier this month to assess conditions at the animals' new home, the Mae Hia Safari Park in Thailand's Chiang Mai province.

Conservationists already protested last month when the Kenyan parliament voted to amend the law to allow sport hunting and authorise farmers to kill wildlife that strayed on to their land.

Kibaki vetoed the amendments at the end of December.


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