Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Environmental Issues Remain in Spotlight Following Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

By: William Hoffman

Produced & Edited By: Zainab Kandeh

         When three of the six nuclear reactors at the Fukushima power plant went into meltdown after the 2011 tsunami hit, radioactive material started spilling into the water and land and became the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
         Families and businesses are still suffering from the effects of this disaster and it has caused an upheaval of environmental issues and a focus on a new green movement in Japan that has consequences in many different facets of East Asian environmental issues: radiation, agriculture, social responsibility and sustainability in business.
         One of the areas that has been most affected by the disaster is agriculture and fishery markets. Mari Takenouchi, an independent journalist in Japan, has followed the effects of the disaster, and found the government is doing a lot to hide some of the radiation’s effects.
         She speculates strontium 90 and yttrium 90 radiant raise the incidence of leukemia, diabetes, suppressed immune systems, damage of nervous systems and developmental damage to unborn babies. However, the government was slow to include these radiant in its initial reports.
         “Since the Japanese government acknowledged the severe danger of strontium 90, they are doing their best to avoid this topic,” Takenouchi said. “Since there is no scientists who do the research on this in Japan, nobody can say the negative impacts for sure, but I think it is already happening.”

Radiation Effects More Than General Area

         These effects can travel far when the fish are affected by this radiation, Takenouchi said, yet canned pacific fish are still being exported to countries such as Cambodia, Ghana, Senegal, the Congo and Sri Lanka. While no connection to the radiation can definitively be made, Takenouchi said the reports of adverse health effects come from school children out of that country are cause to stop exportation of pacific fish to these developing countries.

Taking A Stand Against Nuclear Power
Nuclear protest continue in Japan 
following the Fukushima nuclear disaster. © Courtesy of: AFP
  Takenouchi said the Japanese government has no plans to limit the sale of pacific fish but intends to restart its nuclear program. 
         “In spite of majority of people's opinion, more than 70 percent are against nuclear power now in Japan,”  Takenouchi said. “But one day, I think Japanese people's inner outrage could translate into real change when the next nuclear disaster takes place.”
         Despite the government's actions there is a strong anti-nuclear sentiment growing in Japan. The Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center (CNIC) is one such group which looks to spread information on the dangerous consequences of nuclear energy and strive towards a nuclear free world.

         Hajime Matsukubo, an officer with the center, said the organization has gathered eight million signatures towards its 10 million signature goal to prove there is a strong opposition to nuclear power.
         While these efforts have an impact on the startup of some nuclear plants such as the Takahama Power Plant, the government is ultimately looking to restart its nuclear program by January or February, Matsukubo said.   
      “Maybe it’s difficult that nuclear power is one of the main political issues,” Matsukubo said. “It’s only nery one political issue and to people the economic issue is more important.” 

Environmental Issues Stem From Lack of Resources 

     Many different environmental issues make-up the Japanese political landscape and many of them stem from Japan’s lack of mineral resources. The country is largely dependent on imported resources in order to sustain itself ranking it the world’s largest importer of coal and liquefied natural gas, according to the CIA World Fact Book. Japan also suffers from low levels of food production, making it more dependent on imports.

         Larry Korn, student of the farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka and English translator of Fukuoka’s book The One-Straw Revolution, said rice is heavily subsidized in Japan, a practice left over from the Tokugawa period (1603 - 1868).
Farmer Takashi Nakajima operates a tractor in his lettuce field in 
Kawakami Village, Nagano Prefecture, Japan.
© Courtesy of Masaaki Iwamoto/Bloomberg

       “They feel like they have to grow enough rice to feed the country,” Korn said. “They have to depend on other places for all of their oil and most of their natural resources, but rice they won’t let go of that one thing, so they subsidize the rice growers.”
       But very few people make their way as farmers anymore as 91.3 percent of the population lives in urban zones according to the CIA World Factbook.

Sustainability is Opportunity
         This has brought about the need for more urban agriculture in the cities. There’s been a dramatic increase in urban farm production with one-third of all Japanese agricultural output generated by urban agriculture according to a United Nations University article.

         Even businesses in the largest cities are beginning to see the advantages of incorporating sustainable practices into the work environment.

   Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) works with corporations and organizations to catalyze change within business by integrating sustainability into strategy and operations.

         “Japanese companies, if one leading company stands to do one program then a lot of Japanese companies tend to copy,” said Asako Nagai, BSR’s director in Japan. “Sustainability might be a risk … but sustainability is a lot about opportunity.”
An employee harvests veggies grown inside an office "urban farm" in Tokyo. 
The Pasona Group, an employment and staffing company, established the 
growing area to foster a work environment that "coexists with nature."
© Courtesy of Yuriko Nakao, Reuters
   As this urbanization continues to increase, these sorts of sustainable business models will be ever-more important to the long-term progress of Japan.
         “Tokyo is growing bigger and bigger and the population is concentrating into Tokyo and we’re seeing less people in the rural area,” Nagai said.
         Sean King, an Ohio University student studying in the city, said in his short time there he’s seen this urbanization turn towards animosity at the “boonies” outside of Tokyo. However, he admits the city is very clean as people never simply throw trash on the ground, a result of cultural attitudes toward litter.
        “The Japanese term is Geri,” King said. “It’s a prevailing mindset where you want to uphold your own personal standing in society — you owe a debt to everyone around you and everyone around you owes a debt to you.” 

         It’s this attitude which might just push Japan into the future.

       “I’m expecting, hoping Japan can move forward taking the global initiative to prevent climate change,” Nagai said.

A Divided Society: Lack of Black Professors a Detriment to South African Higher Education

By: Jim Ryan

Produced & Edited By: Zainab Kandeh

          Lesego Serolong grew up poor, in the shadow of South African Apartheid. She spent her youth in a reserve dedicated for unskilled black people, where her parents were government servants. Her father died when she was 11 and her mother followed suit not long thereafter. 

         Now the recipient of a master’s degree, Serolong cites a good education as giving her the opportunity to emerge from the township in which she lived and ultimately help those she left behind.

         “I realized that it would be really hard for me to change the system from inside,” she said.

          In order to do so, she set off for the United States, where she attended school. Her first stop: Wilberforce University in Ohio, a historically black college. The landscape there is similar to what she would have experienced had she attended a South African university, as more than 70 percent of South African university students are black, according to The Guardian.
Students attend a lecture at the University of Cape Town. 
© Courtesy: University of Cape Town

Lack of Diversity Amongst South African Professors 

        Only 14 percent of university professors in South Africa are black, however, meaning that there is a cultural disconnect between the professor and pupil.

         "The South African education system is really bad...it's really behind," Serolong said.

          The topic is a divisive one among South African educators, many of whom agree that something must be done to improve the lack of diversity among the professorial ranks. Many would like to see a rise in the number of black educators, mirroring the surge of black officials that have begun working for the South African government since the fall of Apartheid. 

          South Africa’s current parliament is composed of predominantly black men, and each of the country’s four democratic presidents have been black. Still, only a small percentage of the more than 200 full professors at the University of Cape Town, one of the country’s largest universities, are black. Finding an educator of color there, says Xolela Mangcu, an associate professor of sociology, is like finding a needle in a haystack.

         Mangcu is one of few educators who are outspoken about this issue. He has been quoted extensively in the media about the lack of black professors in South Africa, while many of his peers defer comment.
         He said that the small number of black professors speaks to the South African government’s failure to modernize its education system. The root of the problem is two-pronged, he said. The first is that the conservative government mistakes political power for democracy. The second is that white professors have dominated universities for so long that they view black professors as a threat to their authority. 
          This, he said, is to the detriment of South African students who attend institutions of higher education within their home country.

         “South African universities are poorer for not having black academics,” he said.

           The lack of diversity within the University of Cape Town, he said, is also reflected in the quality of its course offerings.

          “How can any university teach history, politics, anthropology, arts without a single black professor, and without a single black woman professor — which is the case right now at the University of Cape Town,” he said.

           Zethu Matebeni, a University of Cape Town senior researcher, said that there is an “unspoken notion” that white people are those who should be conducting research and teaching students at universities such as hers.

         “Current research at UCT tells us that students are alienated because of the institution and also because they do not see any professor who represents them and their background,” she said.

Students attend a graduation ceremony at the 
University of Free State in South Africa
©  Courtesy: University of Washington

          She said that an increase in the number of black professors at the University of Cape Town would make black students feel less alienated and would generate a more diverse range of research. 
Reinvesting in Education for All Students

          Gabriël Botma, who teaches journalism at nearby Stellenbosch University, said that the legacy of Apartheid is still apparent in South African society. The majorities of black South Africans, he said, continue to struggle to compete against the white privilege that is entrenched in South African culture and generally have fewer financial and symbolic resources than their white peers. 

         Botma, who is a white man, thinks that the South African government must reinvest in education.

         “(That) would add value in terms of more diversity of views, experiences, cultures, languages, approaches — and thus the broadening of the mind of students, as well as bringing people from diverse backgrounds closer together and creating relationships,” he said. “It would also provide role models for the youth and challenge entrenched stereotypes in a divided society.”
Building a Stronger South Africa

         Sue Wildish, managing director of South African nonprofit The Lunchbox Fund, agrees that the way to build a stronger South Africa is to invest in today’s youth — the next generation of university students. 

         “A child that finished school (and) possibly goes onto tertiary education can take a whole family out of poverty in the course of a single generation,” she said.

         Serolong is looking to do just that, but on a larger scale. After returning to South Africa with her master’s degree from the United States, she chose to work for two years in a rural school rather than hit the job market. 

       “I always felt like with all the opportunities I was getting, I left a community behind,” she said.

       In addition to her job as a managing director of Soul of Africa — a shoe company whose profits aid African orphans — she also works with Raise The Children, a nonprofit that places orphaned children in private schools.

         She said that it’s her goal to get students thinking toward the future — whether that means becoming a tradesperson, shopkeeper or university professor. 
         “It’s been great for them to start thinking about other careers,” she said of her South African students. “We have two this year that are interested in being teachers. We are slowly getting there.”

Monday, December 8, 2014

En Buscar del Sueño Americano

By: Amanda DePerro
Produced & edited by: Olivia Harlow

Hugo Chinchilla was starving. After paying huge sums of money, crossing the border between Mexico and Guatemala, swimming through rivers and running through the night, then-24-year-old Hugo and his 16-year-old cousin had been left in Mexico City by their coyote. Stranded without food, money or a way to contact family, the two slept in a fruit stand owned by a stranger they’d befriended. Before taking refuge in the market, Hugo and his cousin hadn’t eaten for three days.
“I had family in the United States. I could have called them but I didn’t have a penny,” said Chinchilla.
They had no other choice: They had to return home to Guatemala.
Chinchilla’s story from 2000 is not unusual or unique to Guatemalans. UNICEF estimates that 44,000 people from Guatemala are successful in leaving the country each year, many of whom are undocumented.
It is common for Latin Americans looking to leave their home countries to pay coyotes, or people who are paid to smuggle Latin Americans across borders, close to $3,500 each. Journeys across borders usually require multiple coyotes, and it is not unheard of for coyotes to kidnap and ransom the smuggled once they reach their destination for even more money—money that impoverished people and their families simply do not have.
Guatemalan families deported from Mesa, Arizona in the United States cover their faces as they wait to be processed for re-entry at an air force base.
© Jorge Dan Lopez ; Reuters Images
Chinchilla attempted twice in 2000 to cross the border into the United States. During his first attempt, Mexican police caught him at the U.S.-Mexico border.
For Juan Manuel de León, a Guatemalan farmer, the trip was more successful. Like Chinchilla, he took buses and taxis, shepherded by coyotes, to get to the United States. Along the journey, both Chinchilla and de León were forced to swim across the Rio Suchiate, which marks a section of the border between Guatemala and Mexico.
For de León, the trip took eight days. Running through the night from town to town, through the desert and swimming across the river were just the beginning. Once he reached his destination, a milk farm in Dallas, he faced other hardships.
“I felt marginalized because I did not speak English. I didn’t understand what was happening around me,” said de León.
After paying for false documents and working for a year in Dallas, de León returned to Guatemala. He does not plan to go back to the United States, he said, unless he is able to go back legally. Both of his sons attempted to cross the border; one was successful and has lived in Indianapolis for 11 years, the other was unsuccessful and still lives in Guatemala.
“Most people aren’t coming here because they want to live in California,” said Richard L. Johnson, a Ph.D. student at Arizona who lived in rural Guatemala for two years with the Peace Corps, and is studying immigration from Guatemala. “They’re looking for a way to escape the poverty they’ve been in—when you deport someone like that, you’re deporting them into economic hardships that they’re here to escape.”
More than 5,000 people have died attempting to cross the border between Mexico and the United States, according to the ACLU. Many of those crossing are children; according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, nearly 45,000 unaccompanied, undocumented children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador combined have been apprehended in attempt to cross the U.S. border in 2014 alone.
“To me it’s incredible that kids do this travel,” said Javier Ronquillo, an international graduate student from Guatemala studying mathematics at Ohio University. “It’s so hard. They get exposed to so many dangerous things; they get raped, they get harassed, they even get sometimes killed.”
However, for many who want to leave Guatemala, obtaining a visa rather than migrating without documents is unrealistic. A visa can get up to 10,000-12,000 Guatemalan quetzals (around $1,300-$1,500), but it is not a certainty that one’s visa will be granted after one’s money is paid. A coyote may be more expensive, but it is often seen as a guaranteed success.
Guatemalans face extreme violence tied to government corruption, poverty and drug trafficking every day. The promise of safety and opportunity in the United States can lead Guatemalans to attempt coming to the States undocumented.
© Giles Clarke ; Getty Images 

“Immigration laws are closing the door for immigrants,” said de León. He had been convinced not to try the journey again without documents, however, after hearing a story of Guatemalans who were locked in a cold, dark room for three days without food by the U.S. border police after being caught.
“There’s forced labor at the border, kidnappings, other forms of violence that people experience,” said Johnson. “It’s a fracaso more often than it’s a success.”
However, the U.S. government has had little victory in quelling the flow of undocumented migrants into the country.
“The idea that we can just deport this problem away is totally false and an illusion that needs to be countered,” said Johnson.
“It’s clear that deportation doesn’t work, because they are going to come back again,” said Ronquillo. “It’s incredible because they face so many risks coming back; getting killed, getting kidnapped, getting raped, getting—a million of things.”
On November 20, President Obama gave a speech on immigration and the steps the U.S. government has taken to lower the number of crossings at the border.
“Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law? Or are we a nation that gives them a chance to make amends, take responsibility, and give their kids a better future?” said President Obama in the speech.
 Chinchilla’s brother, who came to the United States successfully and is working in Stanford as a gardener, told Chinchilla not to come back to the United States. “This is not as good as it seems,” he said. Chinchilla’s brother’s wife and children still live in Guatemala. He hopes to be able to save enough to start sending money back to them, but is barely making enough in the United States to support even himself.
“I wanted to change my life, because in Guatemala you are condemned to poverty,” said Chinchilla. “Ir en los Estados Unidos es un sueño.”
“To live in the United States is a dream.” 

Mental Health in the UAE Calls for Community Involvement

By: Zainab Kandeh
Produced & edited by: Olivia Harlow

Depression, Bipolar Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are just few of the many mental illnesses that people all over the world live with everyday including those who have yet to be diagnosed.
While there are facilities and professionals ready and willing to help people who have a mental illness, coming forward and seeking help in the UAE and throughout the world can be a difficult step.
Zayed University Associate Professor and Psychologist, Dr. Justin Thomas said that issues with treatment methods often make people reluctant to seek help. 
“Treatment is often poor and takes little account of the clients world view, Dr. Thomas said. “Anti depressants for example [are] over prescribed and [have] lots of side effects with little evidence of efficacy beyond placebo.”

© ncbhs.org

Zayed University Assistant Provost for Student Affairs and counseling psychologist, Dr. Fatima AlDarmaki said that differences in culture and fear of alienation are factors that contribute to why people may be reluctant to seek treatment. 
“There is a lot of cultural misunderstanding and stereotyping about the mentally ill,” Dr. AlDarmaki said. “Not everybody who’s having mental health issues is insane. That’s what I think mainly people are afraid of. The concern about their image and the concern about how other people will perceive them is sometimes why they try to tolerate the sickness or the problems alone without talking to anyone about it but it gets to the point where they can not tolerate it and they have to share it with somebody.”
A client feeling as if they can share their experience and build a relationship with a health professional is something Clinical Psychologist and Head of the Psychology Division for the American Center for Psychiatry and Neurology, Dr. Susan Partridge said is most important in the UAE.
“The therapeutic relationship is really important in working here,” Dr. Partridge said. “It’s important anywhere but in the Arab world the emphasis on relationships makes it even more central-without it you are likely to fail to engage your client in the therapeutic endeavor.  After that you need a good formulation (an understanding of how the problem started and what maintains it) and that should indicate what intervention is needed.”
Dr. AlDarmaki said that honesty and clear expectations also add to the success of a client continuing with treatment.

© health.com

“You have to explain to the patients and clients how [treatment] works and what the expectation is. If the client expects that in one session, oh, I will feel good or I will recover from my issues, they will be disappointed if they don’t see immediate results and maybe they will not come back. You have to explain how treatment works and you have to explain the role of what they need to do to outside of therapy. Clients need to be motivated. If the client is not motivated treatment usually doesn’t work.”
There are many facilities throughout the UAE equipped to help people with mental illnesses, including centers such as the Sheikh Khalifa Medical City managed by the Cleveland Clinic in Abu Dhabi and the American Center for Psychiatry and Neurology located in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah.
While facilities continue to expand and improve American University of Sharjah Assistant Professor of Psychology, Dr. Sabrina Tahboub-Schulte said the effort must continue.
“It is great that there is an increasing number of clinics and hospitals available,” Dr. Tahboub-Schulte said. “This trend should continue combined with more awareness campaigns and educational programs.”
Zayed University Psychology Professor Man Chung echoed Dr. Tahboub-Schulte’s sentiment and challenged the public to take an active role in learning about mental illness.
“I think we have to educate the public first on what mental illness is,” Dr. Chung said. “We need to educate the public about that and almost begin to change the way in which people think about mental health difficulties. Mental health is nothing that people need to be afraid of. People with mental health problems are able to help themselves but I think the general public doesn’t necessarily see that.”

© universitiesnews.com

The World Health Organization hopes to and is activly steps to ensure that the importance of mental health education is known around the world. In its Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2020 the World Health Organization plans to influence mental illness with four objectives; to strengthen effective leadership and governance for mental health, provide comprehensive, integrated and responsive mental health and social care services in community-based settings, implement strategies for promotion and prevention in mental health and strengthen information systems, evidence and research for mental health.
While the world has come a long way in the treatment and understanding of those who have mental illnesses, it is on the radar of many countries that more should be done, including the UAE. Being as that mental health affects all people, Dr. AlDarmaki said she hopes that people realize the role that mental health plays throughout one’s life.
“Mental health is part of our lives,” Dr. AlDarmarki said. “Mental health is what brings you to work and makes you interact with people so it’s important that we support any effort to emphasize mental health and the services for mental health for those who need mental health services. Policies, procedures, services, accessibility, education and awareness are all important. As physical health is important mental health is important. As education is important mental health is important. Emotional support and mental health support is important.

Parental Rights Challenged During Medical Emergencies

By: Caroline James
Produced & edited by: Olivia Harlow

Stepping off the plane in Spain, the parents of Ashya King were met by Spanish police and arrested. Their sick son was taken and they were detained for child endangerment and suspicion of neglect. While the charges would soon be dropped, international attention had already been called to the King’s story.

Five-year-old Ashya King was diagnosed with the often-fatal medulloblastoma tumor at South Hampton’s Hospital in England. The survival rate of such a diagnosis is 70 percent and the effects of radiation and chemotherapy can be devastating to other internal organs, especially in young patients.
Ashya King being admitted to treatment in Prague. © Independent

British citizens Brett and Naghemeh King wanted their son to undergo proton beam therapy, a treatment that targets the cancerous cells while leaving the surrounding tissue unharmed.
“It zones in on the area, whereby normal radiation passes right through his head and comes out the other side and destroys everything in his head.” Brett King said in an interview with the Guardian.
Proton beam therapy was not available in England or covered by the National Health Service. The Kings would have to sell their home in Spain to pay for the treatment in Prague. Because they could not immediately transfer Ashya to a treatment center, the Southampton General Hospital said they could not endanger Ashya’s recovery by taking him out of treatment. The Prague Motol Hospital said they would immediately start treatment of Ashya if the parents could raise the funds.
In a desperate move, the Kings took Ashya from the hospital against doctor advice. The hospitals reported their fears to the police that Ashya would be medically neglected and suffer from the lack of treatment. This incident set off a storm of international debate concerning parental rights in the face of medical emergencies.

The Prague Family © Dailymail

In recent years, a number of governments have had to reconsider this issue. In many situations where parents challenge traditional medical treatment the law must also consider religious protection laws as well. Certain “faith healing” religions forgo medical treatment in favor of prayer for themselves and their children.
The United States has currently been undoing several religious protection laws to allow for murder charges to be pressed against parents whose refusal to medically treat their children leads to the child’s death.
“Medical treatment must be a higher priority than respecting cultural or religious customs,” Ali Salman, a doctor from Syria, said. “We never considered cultural or religious beliefs when there is harm to human life, including children, during my practice.”
Though some medical professionals feel that religious customs must be respected for the good of the individual as a whole.
“I think the cultural or religious customs should be respected when we talk about medical treatment,” Yi-hui Lee, a doctor from Indonesia, said. “The cultural and religious customs may affect the psycho-social aspects of an individual, and the psycho-social well-being may play significant roles on the health outcomes and the chosen treatment."
The U.N. Declaration of Rights of the Child established that a child is entitled to medical services and protection from neglect. The African Charter on Human and People’s Rights establish that States parties should condemn harmful, unnecessary and religiously motivated medical procedures, such as female genital mutilation.
Religion is not the only reason parents give for not seeking medical treatment for their children. The recent growth of non-vaccination groups cites mistrust of certain medical treatment itself as their main deterrence. Belief that vaccinations are dangerous and cause mental impairment has been growing throughout the world.
Even though all reliable medical reports have refuted such claims, the fear of dangerous vaccinations has kept children from receiving them. It is estimated that over six thousand people have died as a result of parents refusing vaccinations for their children.
The U.S., Latvia, Slovenia, Germany, the Czech Republic and almost all developed countries have compulsory vaccination regulations that require vaccines for children in order to attend public school. Other countries, such as Australia, offer financial benefits to getting children vaccinated.
While the methods may be different, both sides feel that what they are doing is in the best interest of the children. Believers in faith healing genuinely believe that their child will be cured; parents who refuse vaccinations fear that their child will suffer from side effects.
This is also what happened in the situation of Ashya King. Both the King’s and the hospital’s goal was the health and safety of Ashya. The trouble occurred when the same goal was approached differently by the two groups and set off the debate of who had the final say.
As soon as the arrest was made in Italy, prosecutors from England dropped the charges. They cited that they did not want to arrest parents seeking medical care for their child; they just wanted to ensure that medical care was being sought.

The Proton Therapy Center in Prague where Ashya was treated © The Prague Post

“I know that everyone shares my relief that Ashya is now in Prague Motol Hospital,” Fiona Dalton, the Chief Executive of South Hampton’s General Hospital, said on her blog. “Where he will be able to receive the treatment that he needs.”
While these issues will continue to concern both families and lawmakers in decades to come, the King family is free to focus on the care and health of their seven children. Ashya received treatment in Prague and responded well to the proton beam therapy. He was seen in a recent video at the park right before he was discharged from the hospital.
“Taking him out to the park, that’s such a huge thing!” Naveed King, Ashya’s eldest brother, said. “We haven’t actually taken him out since we’ve been here.” 

Cambodia's Complex Human–Elephant Relationships

 By: Olivia Harlow
Produced & Edited By: Zainab Kandeh 

         Asian elephants – revered for symbolizing steadfastness, prosperity and strength – are regularly exploited and abused across Southeast Asia. This mistreatment hypocritically contradicts the acclaimed religious status dubbed to these gentle giants.

         Where hundreds of thousands of elephants once roamed freely, now only 25,000 to 32,000 remain. According to international Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), populations have dropped approximately 50% over the past sixty to seventy years.  Not only are populations quickly diminishing; they are extremely difficult to track.
Elephant population in southeast Asia Photo 
© Courtesy: Asian Elephant Specialist Group

Habitat Loss a Contributing Factor to Declining Population

     According to EleAid, population surveys in Cambodia were first attempted in 2001 and highlighted difficulties of scientifically obtaining data in lower density, forest-dwelling populations.  

         Patricia Sims, filmmaker and founder of World Elephant Day, predicts there are only about 200 elephants left in Cambodia.  

         “Can we recover the populations? Probably not,” says Sims. “It’s more of a habitat loss issue and a human-elephant conflict issue, and the fact that the elephants really have nowhere else to go.” She points out that 95% of elephant habitats have been wiped out, making it undoubtedly difficult to revive the species.  

         Cambodia provides rich habitats in which Asian elephants could thrive. However, in order to accomplish revival, Cambodia would need rigorous government enforcement and an environmental policy, both requiring heavy international financing.

Tools of the Trade Lead to Cruel Labor Practices

         Many elephants in Cambodia are rescued from the now illegal logging industry.

         Within this industry, elephants are heavily abused. The animals are captured and given amphetamines to reduce their appetite and increase their work productivity. Once detained, they’re tied to poles and forced to stand, with little to no room for movement. Loggers then beat the elephants and poke them with sharp instruments until they submit to labor.

         One tool regularly utilized to inflict harm is the bullhook.

         According to Sims, mahout tradition is almost completely lost, and today’s “mahouts” who work in tourism camps rely on the bullhook as a disciplinary item. 

         “The bullhook when used properly isn’t abusive,” says Sims. “A really well-trained mahout who understands the art of being a mahout and has a good relationship with the elephant often won’t use it at all.”  

         Erik Dettle, filmmaker of Mahout: Changing Reigns comments on vanishing mahout tradition. 

         “I don’t enjoy seeing thousands of years of culture being reduced to a side show attraction.”  

         Diana Edelman worked for Save Elephant Foundation and conducts a travel blog. 

         “I have seen elephants beaten, stressed, touted on the street, and exploited for monetary gain and human enjoyment,” she says.  

Walking the Fine Line between Profits and Ethics

         Trekking, begging, and performing are ways elephants are used in Asian tourism. Exploitative risk is always present when animals and commercialization meet.

         Elephant riding is extremely popular across Asia. It’s benefited Cambodia’s national economy, yet has stripped away quality of life for many elephants. Some companies claim their elephants are treated well, but others undoubtedly abuse and overwork the animals solely for economical gain.

         “Tourists really love elephants and wanna be around elephants. It’s a big money maker,” says Sims.

         With more awareness, there is a big shift, requiring elephants to be properly cared for. For this reason, Sims believes more ethical tourism industries have potential to help in the long run.  

         When it comes to trekking, riding behind the ears, without use of a Howdah saddle is considered moral. 

          A fully-grown elephant can carry approximately 350 pounds, but Howdah saddles alone can weigh up to 200 pounds. Regularly elephants are forced to carry more than one passenger in the saddle, resulting in a doubled capacity.
Elephants spend approximately eighteen hours a day feeding, requiring about 440 pounds of food. In addition to basic needs, elephants need stimulation and time to roam freely. Animals in tourism are generally stripped of these rights. Being overworked and deprived leads to exhaustion and aches, diminished mental and physical health, sometimes even death. 

“Bad Things Can Happen When Man and Nature are Perceived as Separate” 

        Poaching is illegal and highly regulated in Southeast Asia, but the problem does exist.
         In contrast to African elephants, only the male Asian elephant possesses tusks. Therefore, poaching primarily targets males, leading to skewed sex ratios, inbreeding, and high juvenile mortality.  It’s predicted that breeding will be increasingly unsuccessful.

Coexisting in Peace

         Nowadays, Cambodian elephants are constantly on the move and live in fear of humans, making cohabitating challenging and increasing difficulty to accurately calculate populations.  

         Sims knows respectful coexistence is necessary. “To live in harmony would be something I want to work towards,” she says. “Now is the time to take a stand for them.”  
         With about 20% of the world’s human population living near or inside Asian elephant range, dangers arise for both elephants and humans.  Competition for contiguous living space has resulted in a huge loss of forest coverage and serious reduction of elephant numbers.
Developmental projects, including construction of dams, roads, mines, and industrial complexes have also divided elephant habitats into smaller fragments.  

         “Elephants are caretakers to the forest ecosystem,” states Sims. Forests are regenerated with the presence of elephants, yet without elephants and without forests, there is a vicious cycle of losing more and more of both wildlife and animals.  
          “Bad things can happen when man and nature are perceived as separate,” states Dettle.  

          Thankfully, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has declared elephants “priority species,” meaning they are among the planet’s most environmentally, economically, and culturally valued animals.
         Many national parks and sanctuaries strive to care for elephants, but it’s necessary for tourists to differentiate between organizations that truly care for the animals versus those who take advantage of them.  

        Implementation of Save Elephant Foundation began in Thailand and has opened various locations throughout Asia. One location is in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where Phichet Saengla now works. 

An Asian elephant enjoying a bath
© Courtesy:World Wildlife Fund

       Saengla—nicknamed “Mix”— moved to Cambodia in 2012. He recalls his past oblivion to unethical treatment of elephants, prior to working with them. 

      “When I worked at a park, my mind changed everything.  I saw all of the elephants very happy.  They can walk wherever they want and they don’t get abuse anymore.”