BANGKOK — Thai police said they seized more than a dozen elephants Wednesday in raids after busting a gang that allegedly provided the animals' owners with false identification papers.
Fourteen unregistered or illegally registered elephants were taken in simultaneous raids on tourist destinations in the southern provinces of Phang Nga, Phuket and Krabi, said Natural Resources and Environmental Crime Suppression chief Police Maj. Gen. Norasak Hemnithi.
He said the operation, carried out by nearly 100 police and wildlife officials, followed the discovery of identification certificates issued for elephants that were not residing in their registered locations. They were believed to be illegally held after being either smuggled from neighboring Myanmar or taken from the wild.
Two other elephants were seized Tuesday in the eastern province of Trat, TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, said in a statement.
"Police believe that elephants were taken from the wild, either in Myanmar or elsewhere, smuggled into Thailand, where they were trained, transferred to the camps, and then registered at a later date using these falsely provided certificates," TRAFFIC said.
Elephants are the de facto national animal of Thailand, and once provided the backbone for a large forestry industry. With development and deforestation, their numbers dwindled, and there may be only some 2,000-3,000 left in the wild, with a similar number of domesticated elephants, many serving as tourist attractions.
Registration allows the commercial use of elephants. Normally, only calves born to elephants already legally in captivity can be registered, though proof of birth to a domesticated elephant is not required.
TRAFFIC said the case began after police found suspicious elephant identification certificates in camps in Phuket and Phang Nga. Further investigation uncovered 69 more fake certificates in the homes of two men in the northeastern province of Chaiyaphum. The two men are now being sought for arrest.
Thailand and Myanmar are both parties to international agreements prohibiting the cross border trade in elephants. Thai law also bans the capture of wild elephants.
More unregistered elephants are expected to be seized from camps in four other provinces in the coming months, said TRAFFIC, adding that their disposition will be decided on a case-by-case basis.