Saving the Asian elephant: that is what Duncan McNair set out to help do in 2014. No small feat, given the Asian elephant has been listed as 'highly endangered' since 1986, but he has a rare dedication to his mission, something his 35-year career in law has set him up well for.
What was your early life and childhood like?
I'm from a large family – the youngest of seven children. Both my parents were a huge influence in my life. My father Robin had a remarkable career as an RAF fighter pilot in WW2 then, whilst helping establish Displaced Persons’ Camps in Europe for refugees, entered civilian aviation leading to director of BEA and British Airways, negotiating new air routes for Britain with airlines such as Olympic Airways, as well as President Makarios and Aristotle Onassis. He had a fascinating life, travelling constantly, heavily involved in charity work. He was a modest man but a very big personality and left his mark on all of us. My mother was gentle and intelligent, pursuing a professional career whilst raising seven children. They were wonderful parents to all of us and built a very happy household.
What led you down the path of the law?
My father’s influence was felt in all our career choices. He marked several of us down for the law including me. Although I found studying law a slog, I thoroughly enjoy practising it – I do corporate and commercial litigation, and disputes concerning estates, wills and private clients. Through some of the high profile cases I have worked on, I have gained an amount of recognition for my work.
How did you become so involved with animal welfare concerns?
A lawyer needs a good deal of perseverance and common sense. My legal training has been invaluable for my animal welfare work. I was commissioned by the RSPCA in 2012 to conduct a review of their farmed animal welfare guidelines. I chaired a team comprising a cabinet minister, a veterinary professor and a distinguished veterinary practitioner whose inquiry led to the McNair Report of 2013 – the report recommendations became the basis of the RSPCA Assured scheme, now taken up across the world.
I found that work very absorbing and wanted to do something else in animal welfare, in which I'd always had a keen interest. I started hearing horror stories about the treatment of Asian elephants in their home territories across South East Asia, particularly in tourism.
How did you set up Save The Asian Elephants (STAE)?
Having heard of the horrors, I wanted to establish the facts and evidence for myself, so I planned a trip to India in 2014. I saw first-hand the extreme abuse and cruelty inflicted on Asian elephants – from their capture, to how they are treated in captivity and trained to perform – all in the name of human entertainment. Back in England, I met with some of the big charities and concluded that a focused and concerted approach was needed. In January 2015, I founded STAE, its aim to preserve and protect the Asian elephants. A highly distinguished team of conservationists, politicians, lawyers and campaigners formulated our policies and began building information about the collapse in Asian elephant numbers and the extent to which the travel industry is promoting abusive venues that imperil the survival of this ancient species. STAE supports the spread of genuine, ethical sanctuaries where elephants can be observed from a safe and respectful distance.
How is STAE spreading the word?
STAE focuses hard on how to influence for the better Britain's role and the role of tourism in helping, rather than exploiting, Asian elephants. Raising public awareness of the basic facts was a priority, to pull away the cloak of secrecy relied on by those profiting from the abuse. Take-up was huge: few who heard the truth were unmoved. I took opportunities for public advocacy, speaking publicly in Westminster, Brussels, Strasbourg, at universities and temples, to religious, professional and business audiences. From Ricky Gervais to Stanley Johnson, Dame Jane Goodall to Sir Ranulph Fiennes, religious to political leaders, a huge base of distinguished supporters are calling for STAE’s law to ban the advertising or sale of unethical elephant holiday venues. Of huge importance too are the young people who carry STAE’s torch to the new generation. If there's one thing that will save the Asian elephants from final extinction, it is social media.
STAE receives public donations sufficient to cover basic operational expenses. But none of us take any wages, we have no pension funds, no plush offices, no first-class travel. We are only in it for the cause. As we say, "We do it for nothing, but we do it for everything." Virtually every penny donated to STAE goes immediately to our frontline work.
In the face of challenges, how have you stayed the course?
Simply because we are absolutely committed to the survival and betterment of the welfare of Asian elephants. We are sustained by enormous levels of public support: STAE’s petition is the biggest for elephants in world history, nearly one million signatures. Those from other petitions aligning with ours are a further 30 million. Recent independent polling shows 90% (and rising) of Britons want an immediate end to the brutalisation of Asian elephants. 79% and rising want STAE’s new Bill as law now.
We try continually to engage with the travel industry. Together, they could make an inestimable impact. Although many travel companies support STAE and turn their backs on old practices, hundreds (possibly thousands) persist in profiteering from the most brutal venues across South East Asia and beyond. This is not only ruinous for the elephants but highly dangerous for tourists brought into contact with abused elephants. Elephants in captivity are highly dangerous – they attack when stressed, often fatally. They are also highly effective transmitters of airborne viruses like tuberculosis, Ebola, SARS and, early evidence suggests, COVID-19. Through a combination of concealment and lack of information, many tourists are sent to these venues, completely unaware of the dangers.
Ultimately, in a democracy, the purpose of raising public awareness is to engage the political process and change the law. I spend a great deal of my time on this, with help from esteemed members of my team. We are very gratified with the engagement we are getting now from our Government. I have just led STAE to our sixth meeting at 10 Downing Street, urging new law preventing the abuse of elephants in tourism but also the abuse of many other endangered wildlife. Government has asked STAE for a draft Bill - the Asian Elephants (Tourism) Bill.
With the high number of British tourists travelling to South East Asia, Britain has an enormous role to play in the future of Asian elephants and we must act before their time is up. There were once millions of Asian elephants, now barely 40,000, of which 40% are in captivity and being ruthlessly abused. Many scientists describe Asian elephants as the "megagardeners of the forest", a super keystone species that performs a unique role in the nourishment and maintenance of the forests they inhabit – the lungs of the world on which numerous other species (including ours) rely for survival. We kill off the Asian elephant at our own great peril. Both ethically and ecologically this state of affairs is unintelligible, and untenable.
What are you proudest of with your work with STAE?
I am privileged to be involved in all of STAE’s work, and to have the wonderful support we do from every quarter. STAE was gratified, as a small and young organisation, to be named recently as 'Animal Heroes of the Year' at the Animal Star Awards, an event attracting 851 entrants across the country. The course of STAE’s meetings with Government is encouraging. We have hope of real change. But vigilance is needed at this critical time for the Asian elephants.
Update February 2021: 1 million and more news
STAE’s change.org petition calling for new law to protect Asian elephants by a UK ban on adverts for unethical venues, already by far the largest petition in history for the elephant species, achieved 1 million signatures on 2 February 2021, on the same day that the RSPCA, one of the largest animal charities globally, issued a quote strongly backing STAE’s campaign for new law. That same week, STAE entered into its next meeting with DEFRA and, on 9 February, its fifth meeting with 10 Downing Street.
A message from Save The Asian Elephants
Please help us to give the elephants a chance, whilst time remains, by signing STAE’s crucial online petition on http://bit.ly/STAEpetition or, if you are based in the UK, by writing to your MP urging them to support STAE’s proposed new UK law to ban the advertising and sale of unethical Asian elephant-related holiday venues. A suggested letter and MPs' contact details can be found at http://bit.ly/MP-STAE We thank you for your support. Find out more about STAE at www.stae.org or call 07852 416696.
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