Vientiane (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Ordinary Laotians and environmental groups are protesting the Laotian government's decision to loan eight elephants to Japanese zoos, including one near the Fukushima nuclear exclusion zone. Once known as the 'Land of a million elephants', Laos now has less than a thousand pachyderms (900 according to official figures). The presence and preservation of the species, which is threatened by environmental degradation and poaching, is an urgent imperative to avoid extinction.
The eight elephants, which will be shipped under a three-year agreement between the Japanese and Laotian governments, are to be taken from the forests in northern Xayaburi province to several zoos, including a safari park just outside the Fukushima evacuation zone established after the March 2011 nuclear incident.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Laos said villagers who care for the elephants were unhappy with the move, likening it to giving away "national treasures," already threatened by trade with China.
In Vientiane, government officials have refused to comment on the issue, but scientists and environmentalists have criticised Japan for taking elephants out of Laos.
"Thailand, Sri Lanka and India, all signatories of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Fauna), have thousands more elephants than Laos; surely it makes sense to source zoo elephants from their shores," an Australian expert wrote. Conversely, Laos simply cannot afford to lose eight more young elephants.
"The Vietnam War, forest degradation and poaching have seen Asian elephant populations crash almost to the point of no return," she added.
A recent study noted that Laos has become a hub for the illegal international elephant ivory trade, with large shipments of products made from the tusks.
Some 2,493 pieces of ivory, including jewellery and raw tusks, were found in a number of stores in the Laotian capital catering to foreign tourists, many times more than 100 ivory items on sale in 2002.