Date: Mon, 23 Dec 2019 04:22:26 +0100 (MET)
By Sophie DEVILLER and Jonathan KLEIN

Ban Ta Klang, Thailand, Dec 23, 2019 (AFP) - Separated from their mothers, jabbed with metal hooks, and sometimes deprived of food -- many Thai elephants are tamed by force before being sold to lucrative tourism sites increasingly advertised as 'sanctuaries' to cruelty-conscious travellers.   Balanced precariously on hind legs, two-year-old Ploy holds a ball in her trunk and flings it towards a hoop, e of many tricks she is learning in Ban Ta Klang, a traditional training village in the east.   Here young elephants are "broken" to interact with tens of millions of tourists who visit Thailand every year, many eager to capture social media-worthy encounters of the kingdom's national animal playing sports, dancing and even painting.

Villagers in Ban Ta Klang who have been working with the large, gentle animals for generations say taming is necessary for safety reasons and that the force is not excessive.       "We do not raise them to hurt them... if they are not stubborn, we do nothing to them," said mahout Charin, as he stroked Ploy's head affectionately and spoke of her as part of his family.   Charin makes about $350 a month in a profession that was handed down from his father and grandfather.    "I have always lived with them," he added.   But animal welfare advocates argue the taming technique -- where babies are removed from the care of fiercely devoted mothers at the age of two -- is cruel and outdated.   It is also little-known, one of many murky aspects of an evolving elephant tourism trade often kept from view of tour operators and travellers.

- Big business -
Elephants were phased out of the logging industry about 30 years ago, leaving their mahouts unemployed.   So they turned to Thailand's flourishing tourism industry, a burgeoning sector of amusement parks offering elephant rides and performances.    A tamed elephant can now fetch up to $80,000, a colossal investment that then requires gruelling hours of work and increasingly bizarre stunts to be recouped.    Mae Taeng park in the northern city of Chiang Mai receives up to 5,000 visitors per day and charges an entrance fee of about $50.   Many come to see Suda, who holds a brush in her trunk and paints Japanese-style landscapes for visitors who can later buy the prints for up to $150 before taking an elephant ride through the hills.    As tourists become more aware of the potential cruelty of such activities, a growing number of places have opted to use the term 'sanctuary' or 'refuge'.

Many do not permit rides or animal performances. Instead tourists are encouraged to feed, groom and care for elephants, gaining an unforgettable experience with one of nature's most majestic creatures.   But charities warn that even seemingly benign options, like bathing them, could still be problematic.    "Bathing with elephants...is often stressful for elephants and mahouts especially when dealing with groups of excited young people," Jan Schmidt-Burbach of World Animal Protection told AFP.   "The best option is to leave it to the elephant to decide if and how to bath and ask tourists to stand back to observe and enjoy this moment without interference."   But even this may not be enough.    Some animal rights experts warn it can be hard to discern the treatment of the animals after the crowds have gone home. Some reported cases of elephants at so-called sanctuaries being chained for long hours, forced to sleep on concrete, and malnourished.

- Ethical tourism? -
Of the 220 elephant parks identified across the country, even if many promise ethical tourism, "only a dozen ensure truly satisfactory living conditions", according to WAP.   It is working with ChangChill, a small organisation near Chiang Mai, bordered by a river in the middle of rice terraces.    In a few months, it changed its methods to give elephants more space, fewer interactions, and an environment resembling life in the wild.     "We don't force them to do what they wouldn't instinctively do," says director Supakorn Thanaseth.    As a result, they are "less sick, calmer". 

The risk of accidents with tourists has decreased as the animals are less stressed, though mahouts still have a hook in a bag for emergencies.    ChangChill hopes to become profitable in the current high season, but it will only be able to receive around 40 tourists a day to visit its six elephants as part of its aim to put the creatures first.    That is a drop in the bucket when Thailand has nearly 4,000 "domesticated" elephants.   Thai authorities are reluctant to reintroduce them into natural habitats, as advocated by some NGOs, because of a lack of space and potential conflict with humans.

The compromise, some argue, is to better regulate the sector and improve standards.   But there is little impetus to enact more stringent rules that would cut into the Thai tourism industry, which welcomed more than 38 million visitors this year.    A committee of several animal welfare associations submitted recommendations to the government last year advocating stricter controls for elephants in captivity.   But according to activist Sovaida Salwala from Friends of the Asian Elephants, an NGO who helped compile the report, their requests "remain unanswered so far".   In fact, there is some evidence the animals' situation is getting worse.    Schmidt-Burbach said their last research in 2015 found some 1,771 elephants whose welfare was in question.    He explained: "There are 357  more elephants in poor conditions compared to our 2010 study."
Date: Thu, 21 Nov 2019 09:12:36 +0100 (MET)

Bangkok, Nov 21, 2019 (AFP) - A shallow 6.1-magnitude earthquake hit north-western Laos near the Thai border early Thursday, the United States Geological Survey reported, alarming locals who felt buildings shake as far away as Bangkok.  The quake hit at 6:50am (2350 GMT Wednesday), roughly three hours after a 5.7-magnitude earthquake in the same region triggered an immediate suspension to Laos' largest-capacity power plant located near its epicentre.    Tremors could be felt more than 700 kilometres (435 miles) away in the Thai capital, where Pope Francis is currently on a four-day visit.    "The shaking... was the main shock from a quake in Laos at 6:50 am and was felt in northern and northeastern Thailand and Bangkok and suburbs," said Sophon Chaila, an official at the Thai Meteorological Department.

The department said the quake affected nine provinces in Thailand and there were four lesser aftershocks.    It also became a top trending topic on Twitter in Thailand, as locals shared videos of swaying overhead lights and rattling window blinds in office buildings.    Residents in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi also felt buildings sway.    "The ceiling lights were shaking quite strongly. I felt dizzy and scared," said Hanoi resident Tran Hoa Phuong, who felt the earthquake in her 27-storey apartment building.    After the first quake, the 1,878-megawatt Hongsa Power Plant -- Laos' largest-capacity thermal energy generator -- immediately suspended operations according to a statement from the Thai-owned company.

No "fundamental" damages or injuries have been found so far, "merely damages to the external texture of the buildings", it said, adding that Hongsa is expected to take 24 hours to complete its inspection.    Photos shared by Thai news showed portions of the power plant's walls had collapsed, and debris littered its premises.    Nearby Xayaburi dam project, one of Laos' largest hydropower dams, has seen "no impact" so far, and is continuing to generate electricity "as normal", said a statement from CK Power.   Information is slow to trickle out of the closed communist state, and there were similarly no official reports of injuries after the twin quakes hit early Thursday.

Impoverished Laos has ploughed ahead with ambitious dam-building projects that critics say lack transparency and stringent safety measures.   The cost was laid bare last year when a massive hydropower project collapsed in southern Laos, killing dozens and leaving thousands homeless.   Pope Francis arrived in Bangkok on Wednesday and has a busy agenda Thursday meeting officials and the Thai king before he leads a mass in the evening.    There was no word from his team on whether he felt the quake.    Powerful earthquakes occasionally strike hard in Southeast Asia.   In 2016 a 6.8-magnitude quake struck Myanmar, killing at least three people and damaging temples in the ancient temple town of Bagan.
Date: Fri, 15 Nov 2019 05:28:34 +0100 (MET)

Bangkok, Nov 15, 2019 (AFP) - A French tourist has died after falling from a waterfall while trying to take a selfie in Thailand, police said Friday.   The accident happened Thursday afternoon on the tropical island of Koh Samui, whose palm-fringed, white-sand beaches are a magnet for both backpackers and high-end tourists.   The 33-year-old man fell from Na Mueang 2 waterfall, the same spot where a Spanish tourist died in a fall in July, Lieutenant Phuvadol Viriyavarangkul of the island's tourist police told AFP.

"It took several hours to retrieve his body because the waterfall is slippery and steep," he said by phone, adding that the spot is roped off and there is a sign warning tourists of the danger.   "His friend said he was trying to take a selfie and then he slipped and fell."   Thailand is largely considered a safe destination for tourists and typically draws more than 35 million visitors each year.    But the industry took a hit in 2018 after a ferry carrying Chinese visitors in the country's south sank last year, killing 47 people.   The accident highlighted lax safety rules in the tourism sector and authorities have been scrambling to restore the country's image since.
Date: Sat, 26 Oct 2019 11:56:37 +0200 (METDST)

Bangkok, Oct 26, 2019 (AFP) - Hundreds of dead fish washed ashore on a luxury tourist resort on Thailand's south coast, officials said Saturday, blanketing a long stretch of pristine white sands in a rotting stench.   Some 300 metres (950 feet) of beach on Naka Yai island was littered with dead ponyfish, Phuket provincial fisheries chief Siripong Panasonthi told AFP, adding authorities were working to determine the cause of the deaths but had ruled out pollution in the water.   "We have checked the water quality... It cannot cause the fish to die en masse," Siripong said.   He said he believed the catch of ponyfish -- which, when caught alive are sold to make animal feed but are worthless when dead -- had been dumped by local fishing trawlers.
Date: Sat, 14 Sep 2019 11:16:53 +0200 (METDST)

Bangkok, Sept 14, 2019 (AFP) - Floods in northeastern Thailand have submerged homes, roads and bridges, leaving more than 23,000 people in evacuation shelters as anger grows over the government's "slow" emergency response.   Torrential rain has lashed the country for the last two weeks, causing flash floods and mudslides in almost half its provinces, with families evacuated from their homes in boats or makeshift rafts.   Since August 29, 32 people have been killed in the deluge, said a statement from the disaster department on Saturday that also gave the number of people staying in emergency shelters.   Two weather events are behind the widespread floods, the department said -- Storm Podul and a tropical depression that formed over the South China Sea called Kajiki.

Local media reports from the worst-hit province of Ubon Ratchathani showed people wading through chest-deep water and rescuers in boats trying to steer buffalo to higher ground.   Flooding in the province, which borders Laos and Cambodia, has been exacerbated by rising water levels in the Moon and Chi rivers.   "It will take three weeks to drain the floodwater" from up to 90 percent of inundated households, said provincial governor Sarit Witoon.   "The water has slightly receded about four centimetres today and I think it will keep going down," he added.

But the situation is already "unlivable" for families in one-storey homes, said Pongsak Saiwan, local director of opposition party Future Forward.   Access to an entire district is currently cut off due to flood waters, which are about two metres (6.5 foot) deep in the main town, while three major bridges are "impassable", he said.   "The government has been very slow in responding to the situation since the floods started in the beginning of September," Pongsak told AFP.   Ubon Ratchathani's plight started trending on Twitter this week with the hashtag #SaveUbon.   Aerial shots of the flood-hit plains blanketed with muddy river water were widely shared, as well as photos of stray dogs being rescued by passing boats.

One Twitter user compared the flood response to how quickly the government had mobilised and saved 12 young boys and their football coach from a waterlogged cave last year -- an incident that catapulted Thailand to international attention.   "Only 13 lives stuck in the cave and it was still very high-profile, but this is hundreds of thousands of lives," tweeted Yosita8051. "It's not okay."   Thailand's junta leader-turned-premier Prayut Chan O-Cha tweeted on Saturday that he has told agencies to "expedite assistance" to those in the affected areas.
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