Bangkok: Baby elephants are being illegally captured in horrific conditions to supply Thailand's lucrative tourism industry, prompting calls for Thai authorities to tighten animal trafficking laws.
Before reaching tourist centres, juvenile elephants caught in neighbouring Myanmar are being subjected to torture rituals to "break" their spirit ahead of training to entertain tourists, according to a new report.
After being smuggled across the border into Thailand, young elephants are paired with surrogate mothers that are forced to accept them, according to the report by wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.
"The female may refuse to accept the calf, or vice versa, requiring the animals to be tethered together using a rope or chain," the report said.
Conservationists said that even as tourists clambered atop elephants at Thai camps or hotels, few of them had any understanding of the terrible journey the elephants may have taken to get there.
Poachers In Myanmar's jungle use domesticated elephants to corral wild elephants into pit traps, the report said.
"Mothers and female minders are often extremely protective of wild infants they are guarding, making it difficult for the poachers to capture them," it said. "Using automatic weapons, the protective members of the herd can be easily killed and the infants removed ... the body parts from the slain individuals can then also be sold for profit."
According to researchers, the rituals to break the young elephants include starvation, chaining and savage beatings.
A two-year investigation by TRAFFIC into Thailand's live elephant trade provides details of between 79 and 81 illegally captured wild elephants that were sold in Thailand for up to $US30,000 between 2011 and 2013.
"The actual trade could be very well higher than this, especially considering the clandestine nature of the business," the report said.
TRAFFIC said the capture of elephants in Myanmar and the number of animals slaughtered by poachers threatened the future survival of the country's 4000 to 5000 Asian elephants.
The report says the poaching of wild elephants in both Myanmar and Thailand is almost exclusively due to the elephant tourism industry.
TRAFFIC identified 108 tourist camps, government elephant facilities and hotels in Thailand where there were 1565 elephants.
"There is strong argument to consider either developing robust systems that prevent poaching and illegal trade or phasing out elephant tourism in Thailand altogether as a mechanism for safeguarding the wild populations of an already endangered species," the report said.
Thai authorities announced a clampdown against the illegal elephant trade in 2012 after environmentalist Edwin Wiek warned that baby elephants were being taken out of the jungle at any cost. A video sponsored by Mr Wiek's Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand showing the mistreatment of elephants went viral on the internet.
But under a myriad of Thai laws and regulations, only female domesticated elephants are required to be registered with the government and then only when a calf turns eight. Owners are not asked to prove an animal was born in captivity.
"There are gaping holes in the current legislation which do little to deter unscrupulous operators passing off wild-caught young animals as being of captive origin and falsifying birth and ownership documentation," said Joanna Cary-Elwes, campaign manager for Elephant Family UK, an organisation that sponsored the TRAFFIC investigation.
TRAFFIC recommends urgent reforms so wild and domesticated elephants are governed under one law and that authorities use microchips and DNA tests to register them.
The report said existing penalties were "woefully insufficient" to act as a deterrent to elephant traffickers.
There are estimated to be between 40,000 and 50,000 Asian elephants in 13 countries which the International Union for Conservation and Nature considers endangered.
Myanmar's government acknowledged after the report's release that elephants were being illegally traded across the border into Thailand, but said smugglers were well organised and that no arrests had been made.
Thai authorities have not yet responded publicly to the report.
Lindsay Murdoch is a three-time winner of the Walkley Award, Australia's top award for journalistic excellence. Lindsay is a former correspondent based in Singapore, Jakarta and Darwin. In 1999 he covered the tumultuous events in East Timor, and in 2003 he covered the Iraq war while embedded with US Marines.