A Chinese-owned firm drew fire from animal conservation activists when it brought in 10 elephants from the north of the country to entertain tourists in a special economic zone in the Lao capital Vientiane during Visit Laos-China Year 2019.
The year-long promotional campaign officially encourages tourism and cultural exchange between the two neighboring countries through which Laos hopes to reap the economic benefits of enticing Chinese tourists to visit their southern neighbor.
But animal rights advocates argue that transporting Lao elephants over great distances from remote Xayaburi province to entertain Chinese tourists in crowded Vientiane is unnecessarily cruel.
"I feel so hurt when I see elephants being used as a symbol for the Lao-Chinese [campaign]," a local World Wildlife Fund (WWF) official told RFA's Lao Service.
"The elephants [shouldn't be] forced to entertain groups of people [in the city], they should actually be living in the jungle near the river," the official said.
"Personally, I object to people who bring the elephants to serve tourists. They should not be in the city, crowded with vehicles and people," he said.
Meanwhile in Thailand, Edwin Wiek, founder of the Wildlife Friend Foundation Thailand, said Chinese companies can get special exemptions on Lao animal welfare laws because of their use in the That Luang special economic zone.
"Elephants sold into the special economic zone become Chinese property, so I think [that allows] legal loopholes," he said.
"The Chinese investors are allowed to remove elephants, creating a legal loophole for illegal smuggling within the special economic zone," he added.
Wiek was also concerned about the cruelty of forcing elephants to entertain tourists in the city.
"Bringing elephants from the jungle to the city negatively changes their behavior and well-being," he said.
"Xayaburi province has appropriate areas for elephants [to live] and they can [be seen by] the tourists there, [and still] live better lives," said Wiek.
Company and government response
The company responsible for bringing the elephants from Xayaburi province told RFA that the special economic zone is equipped to handle the elephants.
A representative of Soutchai Tourism Agent told RFA, "[We brought in] 10 elephants from Xayaburi province to support the Visit Laos-China Year 2019 [campaign] in Vientiane. The Chinese businessman is allowing us to use an area in That Luang Special Economic Zone to accommodate the elephants."
"More local and foreign tourists are expected to tour Vientiane over the next week," the representative said.
Local authorities downplayed concerns about animal abuse, instead extolling the benefits of having the elephants in Vientiane.
"Elephants can be moved from one location to another to entertain tourists. It promotes tourism," said an official of the Vientiane information, culture and tourism department.
An official of the Vientiane agriculture and forestry department explained that certain safety risks exist when bringing elephants into the crowded city.
"Relevant officials have to closely monitor and control the elephants because they might unexpectedly attack people," the official said.
According to statistics from Laos' agriculture and forestry ministry, in 2016 there were around 400 wild elephants and 450 living in captivity in the country.
Reported and translated by RFA's Lao Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.
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