Conservation News: Animal Abuse Records, Ivory Ban, and Tiger Temple

USDA Brings Back Animal Abuse and APHIS Records, But Not All

Following the public outcry after animal abuse records were wiped, the U.S. government posted a fraction of the tens of thousands of animal welfare data that were removed earlier this month.

In this announcement, the agency says that it is “posting the first batch of annual reports of research institutions and inspection reports” resulting from a “comprehensive review” that began with the complete removal of previously public documents that are generated by the agency as it enforces the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and the Horse Protection Act.

However, those familiar with the records say that USDA has so far restored only a small number. Among the documents still unavailable are the vast majority of reports from regular inspections of animal-holding facilities that are monitored under AWA, including puppy mills, private research facilities, and zoos. A number of groups have sued USDA to pressure the agency to repost all the records once again.

“Under duress, the USDA is now attempting to get away with reposting only a tiny fraction of the animal welfare records it suddenly and indefensibly deleted … and that does not satisfy PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] or the other plaintiffs in the pending lawsuit against it,” said Brittany Peet, director of captive animal law enforcement at the PETA Foundation in Washington, D.C. PETA has sued the agency to force it to restore the records, and says it won’t drop the suit until USDA complies.

Other organizations that have also sued ASUDA include the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), the Companion Animal Protection Society, Stop Animal Exploitation Now, and Animal Folks. PETA’S joint lawsuit was a cooperation with Born Free USA and The Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine.

“The information blackout is a tremendous blow to transparency and undermines advocates who are working to protect hundreds of thousands of animals across the country,” Stephen Wells, executive director of ALDF, said in a statement.

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This Great Pyrenees was  rescued from a suspected puppy mill. The removed USDA inspection data includes records on puppy mills and breeders, potentially shielding abusers from public view. Photo By: Lance Murphy

Members of Congress from both parties are also equally unsatisfied. Republican Representative Vern Buchanan, co-chair of the Animal Protection Caucus, called the USDA response “insufficient” and that “the database should be fully restored.” Senior Democrat on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Senator Debbie Stabenow stated that she wants clarity as to why the documents were removed to begin with.

The accessible records include inspection reports of the nine research facilities run by the federal government, as well as some annual reports for private and federal research facilities. In addition, the agency’s annual summary reports on the nationwide use of research animals will also be put back online. However, these reports do not show any details about potential abuse nor do they expose the inspection reports of 1,100 public and private research facilities.

However, the reposted research facility reports are still useful as they provide a big picture. For example, the 2015 annual report showed that more than 800,000 animals were used in testing nationwide and of those, 40% underwent testing that caused pain. Compared to the 2008 annual report that showed almost a million animals were tested on, of which 46% experienced pain. In fact, the reports show that there has been a consistent annual reduction in both the overall number of test animals and number of animals in pain. This significant shift is vital to the public’s understanding of animal testing, and without those reuploaded reports, the public would have been in the dark.

National Geographic points to the power shifts and long-simmering political tension in Washington D.C. may be responsible for the disappearance of the APHIS records. USDA’s database were removed in the midst of a leadership vacuum at the agency. Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack left his post on January 13. Though there was a year-long review prior to the proposal to remove the records and Vilsack could have approved the removal in October, he was hesitant about the issue of transparency and the lack of time to fully review the proposal before the end of his term.

Furthermore, the move may have been prompted by a lawsuit by a Tennessee couple named in USDA documents as violators of the Horse Protect Act for signs of horse soring, an illegal practice that involves applying caustic chemicals, nails, or screws to the horse’s’ legs and hooves, making it painful to step normally and encouraging a high, prancing gait for competitions. The couple argued that publishing their names on public documents in the database violated their privacy rights.

But, the USDA has a long history of redacting certain private information from documents without taking them down. This action also goes against the Freedom of Information Act with requires the government to post such information in publicly accessible online databases. The EPA has an online searchable database full of inspection records; the USDA Food and Safety Inspection Service has the same.

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An adult monkey in a shipping crate at Primate Products Inc. in Immokalee, Florida, in 2015. Via PETA

The removal may also have been influenced by the transition team as Trump has recently entered office. He appointed Brian Klippenstein, executive director of Protect the Harvest, an organization with a long history of challenging legislation intended to improve animal welfare. It’s primary objective, as listed on its website, is to “inform America’s consumers, businesses and decision-makers about the threats posed by animal rights groups and anti-farming extremists.”

USDA has remained opaque as to why it first removed the database and why only a fraction has been restored. Organizations as well as  political groups and lawmakers are pressuring USDA to fully restore the database.

Tanya Espinosa, spokesperson for APHIS says “The Agency will continue to review records and determine which information is appropriate for re-posting.”

In the meanwhile, Arizona-based writer, anthropologist, and independent watchdog Russ Kick, has collected thousands of the still missing documents from various sources and posted them online at his year-old website, TheMemoryHole2.org, dedicated to preserving deleted government data.

To summarize the feelings of many, Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, says, “It’s a start, but we’re not satisfied.”

More groups sue to force USDA to restore online animal welfare records

U.S. Backtracks on Purge of Animal Abuse Records—What We Know

EU to Set Its Ban on Raw Ivory Exports

Europe sells more raw and carved ivory to the world than anywhere else, feeding a seemingly insatiable appetite for elephant tusks in China and east Asia.

Despite the international ivory trade already largely banned since 1990, European vendors are still legally allowed to export ivory “harvested” before that date, whether raw or works of carving, polishing, or engraving. And each year, EU sells more and more ivory. Though the official date for 2016 is yet to be published, the four seizures last year confiscated 6,552 lbs (2,972 kg) of ivory across Europe compared to the 1,212 lbs (550 kg) seized in 2015. It is clear that traffickers can infiltrate this legal market by using falsified or forged EU trade certificates to pass their poached ivory off.

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2016 saw a record number of large-scale ivory seizures making it the worst year ever for African wildlife. Via Reuters

“2016 has definitely been a record year for ivory seizures in the EU,” Daniela Freyer, Pro Wildlife’s co-founder told the Guardian. “There is also clear evidence of illegal ivory being traded within the EU. The EU needs to take responsibility and finally ban its own ivory trade as well as all exports. Its continued inactivity is threatening to undermine trade bans by other key players such as China and the US.”

But a leaked draft EU guidance documents indicates a possible July 1st date for a full export ban on raw and unprocessed ivory to “make sure that tusks of legal origin are not mixed with illegal ivory.”

Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine bearder, who proposes a total ban on the ivory trade, stated that “We will not be able to protect elephants as long as this trade persists, remains legal, in one form or another.”

However, heirlooms, cultural artefacts, as well as scientific and educational specimen would be partly exempted from the EU’s trade embargo. Furthermore, the sanction would not affect worked ivory items or the EU’s internal tusk trade, although rules and regulations would be tightened.

The guidance paper, which could change, also instructs EU states to exercise “maximum scrutiny” and “increased vigilance and controls” when dealing with permitted ivory transactions.

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Paris 2014, 3 tons of seized ivory destroyed. Photo By: Frederic Stevens

A commission spokesperson said: “As a further step, the Commission is ready to examine the rationale for and possible design of further restrictions on [the] export of worked ivory and intra-EU trade in ivory. This assessment would take place in the second half of 2017.”

For conservationists, this holds out the possibility of a comprehensive and watertight EU trade prohibition, as the 29 countries of the African Elephants Coalition urged earlier this month.

Bearder, a former antiques trader herself, said: “Until you have a complete ban, you’re not going to stop the ivory trade. All sorts of ivory is being shipped and sold – knife handles, snooker balls – so that it can be reworked, and that is creating the market. We will not protect elephants until everyone knows that you cannot trade in ivory.”

EU set to ban raw ivory exports from July

EU hopes to save African wildlife with ban on raw ivory exports to stem illegal trade

Months After Infamous Tiger Temple Raid, Offset Zoo Opens

Last year the government seized the monastery’s tigers. Now a new zoo that could house up to 500 tigers is nearing completion.

Construction is underway on land just outside Thailand’s infamous Tiger Temple, a famous monastery that doubled as a popular tiger tourism venue until last year. Allegations of wildlife trafficking prompted a raid by wildlife officials, who confiscated 137 tigers, discovered caches of tiger parts and products, and shut down the temple.

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Authorities carry out a sedated tiger during a raid on the temple last June. Photo By: Dario Pignatelli

Although the Tiger Temple isn’t legally connected to this new venture, the monks advertise the “New Home for Tigers Project” on their website as “in process.” The cost of the 10-acre zoo complex is estimated at $3.4 million.monastery—to house tigers in a new zoo.

Already, a high-volume Thai travel company, Thailand Tourist Center, is taking deposits for tours starting in March. One option is a $300 “breakfast with monks and tigers” that also includes bottle-feeding cubs.

In April 2016 Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation issued the Tiger Temple Co. Ltd. a license for what temple officials described as a “safari-style” tiger attraction. In December the company requested approval to buy 105 tigers from the Mali-Salika Zoo in central Thailand, which had filed papers to shut down. The wildlife department has not yet authorized the purchase but with no other existing facilities to take in these tigers, the company will be painting itself as their “rescuer.”

Earlier this month, in a move that may be intended to distance the zoo venture from the recent Tiger Temple scandals, the company took a new name. “According to our sources the Tiger Temple Co. Ltd changed its name to Golden Tiger (Thailand) Co. Ltd. on February 3, 2017,” says Jan Schmidt-Burbach, a senior wildlife advisor with World Animal Protection, a nonprofit that works to phase out the use of wild animals for entertainment globally.

The monastery’s history with tigers dates back to 1999 and the tiger activity has earned the temple an estimated $3 million a year. Meanwhile, allegations that the monks were illegally breeding and trading tigers were growing. Three male tigers disappeared in December 2014, unregistered tigers were discovered, and former staff and volunteers detailed instances of missing adults and cubs.

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Photo By: Steve Winter

After the January 2016 report by Cee4Life, an Australia-based conservation nonprofit, and investigation by National Geographic, the wildlife department seized 10 of the tigers. In May, 500 officers returned with a court order to raid the temple, seizing the remaining 137 tigers. They also made what they called a “gruesome” discovery: a freezer stacked with the carcasses of 40 cubs; 20 more cubs floating in jars of formaldehyde; tiger pelts; some 1,500 tiger skin amulets; and other wildlife products.

In December, DNA analysis of the frozen cubs revealed that six had no parents among the resident tigers and one more had no mother on site. That’s evidence of trafficking, says Kanita Ouithavon, who heads the wildlife department’s state-of-the-art forensics lab. It means that the cubs were either born outside the monastery or that their parents are gone. Ouithavon says it’s possible that further testing could show that other cubs were also unrelated to any resident tigers.

Tiger skins, bones, teeth, and claws are valuable items in a global illegal wildlife trade valued at some $19 billion a year by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Tigers are protected under both Thai law and an international treaty governing cross-border trade in endangered species. Only about 3,800 survive in the wild.

Thailand has some 2,500 tigers in more than 30 legal breeding facilities, including Sriracha Tiger Zoo and Tiger Kingdom, which has been described as the McDonalds of tiger tourism, with three locations and possibly more to come. China has at least 5,000 tigers in breeding farms.

So in light of the monastery’s track record with tigers, wildlife advocates worry that the new zoo next door will breed the cats for the black market. “There’s a fear that tigers will vanish again,” says Sybelle Foxcroft, the founder of Cee4life and author of its report alleging abuse and wildlife trafficking from the Tiger Temple. “There’s no confidence that this new company will comply with laws protecting tigers.”

If the zoo intends to breed tigers legally, it must get a special permit from the wildlife department. According to Soontorn Chaiwaita, the acting director of the department’s conservation office, the company “has not applied for a breeding license. They shall not breed wild animals for commercial purposes.”

Furthermore, the company’s zoo license is valid through April 18, 2021. Under its terms, before the zoo can open, it must meet standards regulating the size and safety of enclosures, hire a resident veterinarian, and more. Once open, it must submit to periodic inspections. If violations aren’t addressed, the license can be suspended or revoked, Chaiwata says.

According to Chaiwata, there are now seven open legal cases relating to the Tiger Temple.

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Authorities also found 40 tiger cub carcasses in a freezer. DNA analysis showed that six of the cubs had no parents among the resident tigers—allegedly evidence of trafficking. Photo By; Dario Pignatelli

Meanwhile, World Animal Protection has urged Thailand’s wildlife department to ban the breeding of tigers in businesses that serve no conservation benefit for wild tigers and to deny the final approval for the zoo license.

Investigations into alleged wildlife trafficking at the Tiger Temple are continuing. Twenty-two people have been cited in legal complaints relating to illegal possession of tigers, the dead cubs, Asian black bears, hornbills, and other endangered species. No names have been made public.

According to the wildlife department, four of those cited, two of them monks, were apprehended in June 2016 while driving away from the temple with a truckload of tiger contraband.

The abbot—the temple’s founder and leader—has not yet been formally questioned or charged, according to sources in Thailand. Arresting a religious leader is complicated in any country, no less so in Thailand, a devout Buddhist nation.

Wildlife experts say that the discoveries at the Tiger Temple have accelerated government efforts to strengthen the protocols and regulations needed to better monitor captive animal facilities and more effectively prosecute wildlife crime.

Kanita Ouithavon’s forensics lab is developing a DNA database for all of Thailand’s 2,500 captive tigers—and, eventually, for the country’s remaining wild tigers as well. The three-year project, in cooperation with the UN Development Program and the Global Environment Fund, is creating a unique genetic tag for each animal to pinpoint its origins.

“It means you cannot say this tiger came from somewhere else,” says Ross McEwing, a forensic zoologist with TRACE Wildlife Forensics Networkwho provides technical support to Ouithavon’s lab.

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A tiger looks on as a wildlife department veterinarian assists during the raid. Photo By: Dario Pignatella

The 147 tigers seized from the Tiger Temple are now living in government wildlife centers. But their conditions are still far from ideal, confined to cages measuring 12 by 16 feet.

Last year Four Paws, an animal welfare group based in Austria, contacted the wildlife department to propose construction of a big cat sanctuary that could house 200 animals. Four Paws offered to help design and work with the agency to jointly build this sanctuary on government land.

Such a sanctuary would allow the Tiger Temple’s animals and other confiscated or abandoned big cats to live out their days under more humane circumstances.

Months After Raid on Infamous Tiger Temple, Plans for Offshoot Zoo Forge Ahead

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