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Opening address

R.B. Singh

FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific

Distinguished Experts;
Friends and Colleagues;
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my pleasure to welcome you on behalf of Dr Jacques Diouf, the Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and my colleagues in the Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific (RAP). I would like to congratulate the Japan Wildlife Research Center and the Forestry Development Group of RAP for jointly organizing this International Workshop on the Domesticated Asian Elephant at the beginning of the new century.

In the face of Asia's rapid growth, both the wild and domesticated Asian elephant populations are experiencing an ever-worsening crisis. The population of about 37 000 wild Asian elephants in 13 countries of South and Southeast Asia has been steadily declining, primarily because of habitat destruction. The population of domesticated elephants, estimated to be about 16 000 in 11 countries in 1995, has been declining also in parallel with their wild counterparts. Thailand had 100 000 domesticated elephants at the beginning of the twentieth century, just 100 years ago, but there are now only 3 800. The wild elephant population in Thailand declined from an estimated 100 000 to 1 500 during the same period.

The FAO Forestry Department's wildlife and protected area management programme has been active since the 1960s. The Forestry Department Group of RAP has been publishing the Regional Quarterly Bulletin on Wildlife and National Parks Management, Tiger Paper, for the past 25 years. However, nearly all of the efforts concerning elephants have been focused on wild elephants. FAO has noted that the domesticated Asian elephant receives much less global attention than its wild counterpart even though the animal is one and the same species. Funding support from donors to the domesticated Asian elephant has been next to nil.

Therefore during 1995-97, FAO launched a study on the domesticated Asian elephant and released a publication Gone astray: The care and management of the Asian elephant in domesticity in October 1997. This publication highlighted the lack of a proper elephant census and presented information on registration, legal status, veterinary care and health, trading, etc. It suggested more involvement from livestock departments and NGOs, as well as technical and financial assistance from the international community.

Given the fact that elephants have never been selectively bred and that most elephants in Asia are superbly pre-adapted for release, FAO would like to stress that the wildlife conservation community should consider playing a greater role in helping to monitor and assess the conditions of the domesticated sub-population. Ten or twenty years from now many of these animals will be critically important for wildlife conservation. In fact, domesticated elephants in some cases are being returned to wild settings, and also one has to keep in mind that there are various degrees of domestication. Thus, the elephant population in Asia represents a continuum. It would be interesting to study the genetic architecture of the various populations and identify the genetic pattern and control of domestication.

Elephants have always been a part of Asian cultures, religions and societies. These jumbos have shared our battlefields, royal compounds, cities, rural dwellings, work forces and of course forests. Revered as a symbol of wisdom, Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, is the first god to be worshipped in India virtually on all occasions. Here in Thailand, Erawan was the elephant carrier of the four-headed god, whose statue many of you might have seen in the heart of Bangkok. On the Indonesian island of Bali the temple doors are often protected with the elephant ‘god', inscribed as Gaja Dwar (elephant gate).

Most importantly, the study of elephant behaviour, its relation with its master (mahout), a huge power being controlled by a small man, offers a rare opportunity to understand the complexities of behaviour. Asian elephants have co-evolved with the Asian people. Caring for elephants in Asia is therefore just not caring for an animal species, but it is much more than that.

Thus, I am so pleased that this first International Workshop on Domesticated Asian Elephants is being organized at the FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. Since the publication of Gone astray there have been increasing offers of support to help improve the situation of domesticated Asian elephants. The support of the United States-based NGO International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) to an FAO project working to produce an elephant care manual is one case in point. Such goodwill and momentum should be accelerated and increasingly coordinated. Thus, there is a strong need to convene this International Workshop on the Domesticated Asian Elephant.

Ladies and Gentlemen, in closing, I wish to acknowledge the generous support of the Keidanren (Japan Federation of Economic Organizations), which contributed the major financial support for 11 country studies on elephants and the organization of this Workshop. The Keidanren Nature Conservation Fund (KNCF) has provided 5 million Yen (about US$ 48 000), half of which has been donated by Sekisui Chemical Co., Ltd, and I am pleased to see that Mr Toshihiro Arai, the President of Thai Sekisui Foam Co., Ltd, is here today.

I also acknowledge with thanks the generous contributions in cash or in kind of the Regional Office of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Bangkok, the Forest Industry Organization of Thailand, the Thai Airways International Public Company Limited, the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project in the USA, Melbourne Zoo in Australia, Los Angeles Zoo and Oregon Zoo in the United States of America, and Terra Natura in Spain. Fauna and Flora International, a United Kingdom-based NGO, sponsored the participants from Indonesia and Viet Nam. The Smithsonian Institution in New York, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service kindly provided its experts to the Workshop and Mr James Ottaway Jr., a newspaper owner in the United States of America, sponsored Mr Teare Andy, an elephant database expert. As a result of these generous contributions we have been able to bring together many experts and knowledgeable participants who will surely enrich the six-days long Workshop.

I wish you all a very challenging, rewarding and enjoyable workshop. I eagerly await the results and recommendations of your deliberations. It is now the dry season and the most comfortable time in Thailand. So, have a pleasant stay in Bangkok, and Lampang and Chiang Mai in the north during the field trip.

Now, I declare the Workshop open.
Thank you.

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