Emirates under the spotlight by conservationists for attempted elephant export flight


(Posted 21st June 2017)

When Emirates some time ago repainted one of their Airbus A380 planes with wildlife motives and then launched their ‘Emirates – United for Wildlife‘ campaign, did the world take notice and this blog too give it extensive coverage.
Now however has information come to light that the airline may have sidestepped its own principles as the intended export of 16 elephants from Laos to Dubai was only stopped at the last moment by the Laotian Prime Minister while an Emirates Cargo Boeing B747F was already sitting on the ground in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, apparently ready to load the animals and take them to a life in captivity to add to Dubai’s list of attractions. The aircraft later returned empty to Dubai after the mission failed!

(An Emirates B747F seen here at Vientiane International Airport at the very time when the elephant drama there unfolded)

Correspondence between one Nick Cockayne, an investigative journalist working with globally renowned wildlife photographer and wildlife trafficking investigator Karl Ammann, revealed startling differences of accounts with a range of unanswered questions, leading to making this story now public to prevent any future such attempts to bring elephants from their free ranges to Dubai as a tourist attraction.

While the events took place in early April were efforts to seek clarification from the Emirates’ President Mr. Tim Clarke launched several weeks later, when all the relevant information from Laos had been obtained and it is now possible with the explicit permission of Mr. Nick Cockayne to put the correspondence as breaking news on this blog.

Start Quote:

To: Sir Tim Clark, President, Emirates Airline

Cc: United for Wildlife

24 May 2017

Dear Mr Clark

I read with interest your announcement of 30th May 2016 regarding your partnership with United for Wildlife and your aircraft’s livery creating awareness of the illegal wildlife trade.

Speaking of flying jumbo’s around the world, I heard from contacts in Laos recently about a transaction regarding 16 elephants sold in Laos to the new development in Dubai – Dubai Safari. This will I gather replace the very small and cramped Dubai Zoo.

As I’m sure you know with your awareness of the illegal wildlife trade, Laotian law does not allow its wildlife – including Asian elephants – to be sold for commercial purposes and therefore a legal and genuine CITES export permit cannot have been issued. Even taking Laotian law into account, the Asian elephant is a CITES I listed species and stringent international measures are in place to ensure these species are not exploited commercially. From the CITES convention:

Article II
Fundamental Principles

1. Appendix I shall include all species threatened with extinction which are or may be affected by trade. Trade in specimens of these species must be subject to particularly strict regulation in order not to endanger further their survival and must only be authorized in exceptional circumstances.

We spoke with the Dubai CITES Management Authority in March and they have confirmed no import permits for Asian elephants have been issued. We’ve also spoken with our contacts in Laos who have confirmed the transaction was all set to take place and the elephants were being sold for U$30,000 each.

Despite the legal issues surrounding the transaction, and despite your company’s strong support for the United for Wildlife campaign, I have evidence that it was an Emirates 747 which sat on the tarmac in the middle of the night, along with 16 transportation containers ready for transfer to Dubai.

Thankfully, due to the last minute intervention of the Laotian Prime Minister the transaction was blocked. However it still concerns me that your company was willing to facilitate this illegal sale, and transport 16 endangered elephants from Laos to Dubai despite your partnership with United for Wildlife, and despite the information videos and announcements you make to passengers on your aircraft highlighting the illegal trade in wildlife. I believe the ticket buying public should be aware of this conflict of interest so they can make an informed choice regarding their preferred carrier.

I would like to draw your attention to this issue and would hope you are able to respond and assure me that Emirates were not in fact involved in this illegality. I wholeheartedly support your ban on transporting trophy shipments but do believe you could become a market leader in your field by broadening this ban to all endangered wildlife, trophy or otherwise, in the future.

If my information regarding the facts surrounding this transaction is incorrect then I look forward to you setting the record straight.

Many Thanks

Nick Cockayne

Dear Mr Cockayne,

Thank you for writing to us. We can confirm that Emirates was not involved in the transport of elephants from Laos to Dubai.

We did send a freighter aircraft to Laos in April for animal transport, at the behest of a customer. However, after inspection, our team discovered that not all the required documentation were provided as promised, and therefore we declined the shipment and flew the freighter back empty. Your email below does not indicate specific dates, but we assume this is the instance to which you refer, where an Emirates freighter was sighted in Laos.

We would like to assure you that Emirates remains committed to playing our part in stopping the illegal wildlife trade. We are very conscious of the illegal trade in endangered species and consequently vet every request thoroughly and if in doubt we would rather decline to carry the shipment.


Valerie Tan

Emirates Corporate Communications

Dear Ms Tan

Thank you for your reply. I am of course delighted the transaction did not take place, however the additional details you have supplied do not always agree with the accounts I have been given, nor the evidence I have received.

You confirm you sent the freighter aircraft to Vientiane in April (the 5th I believe), however it seems a little unusual that despite you stating above that you “vet every request thoroughly”, documentation was not checked and verified BEFORE you flew – I presume at great expense- a large freighter aircraft capable of transporting 16 elephants, from Dubai to Vientiane. One presumes you then had to fly the same empty aircraft back to its base, again at great expense to your company.

Contrary to your explanation that it was Emirates as a company that declined the shipment due to incomplete paperwork, I wrote in my original letter that I’d heard it was the Laotian Prime Minister who had blocked the sale and transfer from going ahead. There’s a letter from the Prime Minister to his foreign minister instructing that he contact his colleagues in the appropriate Ministry in Dubai and refuse the sale. This letter is dated the 4th April – the day before you sent the aircraft, so it seems the government of LDR at least, knew 24 hours before your aircraft arrived in Vientiane that the sale and transfer was not going to take place. Was this information not passed from your client to you and are you able to provide any clarity regarding this discrepancy?

I’m assuming that your client was the Municipality of Dubai as they are the investors building the safari facility. From news reports regarding the imminent opening of the facility and statements made by Mr Husband, its clear Asian elephants are not the only endangered species they will be trying to source. Are you able to confirm whether or not Emirates is contracted to your client to transport more of these “deals” in the future? For example are you due to be involved in this sale of five wild elephant calves from Namibia?


This episode must have cost somebody – if not Emirates, then your client – a great deal of money with zero return. What procedures do you now have in place to ensure any transaction complies completely and transparently with the CITES Convention, of which the UAE is a contracted Party? By this, I refer to information such as the none-detriment findings report produced by the CITES Scientific Authority, that relevant data has been accurately supplied on the import and export permits and data confirming that any Appendix I species transported (which would include these Asian elephants) are a second generation specimen bred at a CITES registered breeding facility?

I expect you are not able to pass any details on to me of the identification of your client. Can you confirm, in the interests of stopping the illegal trade in wildlife, that you will send those details to your partner, United for Wildlife so they are able to investigate further whether or not your client is still intent on buying highly endangered Asian elephants from LDR?

I’m sure the charity and its ambassadors would be keen to ensure not only that this transaction is not resurrected in the future, but any other future transactions of wildlife are also scrutinized as to their legality.

Yours Faithfully


Nick Cockayne

Dear Mr Cockayne,

We are unable to comment on government letters we had no sight of, nor on the permit application processes managed by our customers.

Further, I regret we cannot disclose the identity of our customer, nor can we comment on their future plans.

We can only speak from an Emirates perspective, and we, as a responsible air transport operator, make every effort to ensure that the shipments we transport comply fully with all applicable laws, and industry standards.

We can assure you that Emirates has a clear and comprehensive process in place to vet and verify the documentation accompanying all shipments that we transport.

With regards to the transport of wildlife and endangered species, in addition to compliance with the CITES Convention, we also actively participate in industry forums and working groups, including with United for Wildlife, to review and improve the existing processes. We recognise that when it comes to stopping the illegal wildlife trade, there are many factors at play and multiple stakeholders to address for any strategy to succeed, and at Emirates, we are committed to doing our part.

We believe we have fully responded to the concerns about Emirates which you have raised in your email dated 24 May 2017, and will not be corresponding further on this matter.


Valerie Tan

Dear Ms. Tan,

Thank you for the additional feedback and while I have noted that you will not respond, I feel I want to present some further clarification and background information which I will also pass on to United for Wildlife and will copy to UAE based journalists to enable them to continue this work if they want to, and who are then able to ask relevant questions of all the relevant parties.

Attached is the letter from the Prime Minister (translated into English by my Laotian contact) to various ministries declaring the sale of elephant’s illegal under national law. Various former owners of the elephants have stated on camera that they sold the animals outright and loan conditions were not part of the discussions. This transaction clearly broke national law in LDR.

There can be no CITES import or export permit issued if any national laws were infringed upon, as it appears they were in this instance. The UAE would have had to issue the import permit first before Laos could have begun the process of issuing an export permit. If this process had been adhered to correctly it would have confirmed the elephants were part of a commercial transaction.

You state that you comply with CITES which seems to be part and parcel of the IATA regulations which carriers have to adhere to. However you refused to answer my concern as to why you flew a large freighter aircraft around the world at great expense when the documentation was not and was never going to be, in place? It strikes me as unbelievable that the first time you saw the documentation was after the elephants has been loaded into their crates and taken to the airport in the middle of the night in Vientiane, when the transaction was stopped by the authorities on the word of the Prime Minister. I have no evidence that this transaction was blocked by Emirates on the basis of poor documentation and every indication that without the intervention of the Laotian Prime Minister the elephants would have been loaded on to your aircraft and transported to Dubai. In fact I know the mahoots (elephant handlers) are already in Dubai, again suggesting no one involved in this transaction expected it to fail.

There is strong evidence above and beyond the media report I sent to you that Dubai Safari has plans to import a wide range of CITES I listed animals and I assume, given your track record in this instance, that Emirates will be the preferred carrier for the Dubai municipality. My biggest fear is that the above transaction might not have been the exception but the rule.

It is because of these concerns based on this strong evidence that I trust you will appreciate that in the absence of any further response I will copy this message to a range of Middle East based journalists because I do feel any partner of United for Wildlife should maintain the highest of standards and transparency with regards to transporting endangered species around the globe. This transaction only failed at the last minute due to an intervention by the Laotian Prime Minister and unless I see evidence otherwise, managed to pass all the checks and balances that should have been in place by CITES, IATA, Emirates and Dubai Municipality.



End Quote

Some of the responses do not entirely match the timelines and developments in Laos at the time as the following letter from the Prime Minister’s office goes to show:

Start Quote:


Peace Independence Democracy Unity Prosperity

Prime minister Office No. 528/PMO

Vientiane April 4, 2017


Distinguish: – Minister of Natural Resource and Environment

Minister of Agriculture and Forestry

Minister of Industry and Commerce

Minister of Foreign Affairs

Governor of Xayabouly Province

Subject: Dubie’s zoo of United Arab Emirate want to rent Elephants from Lao PDR.

Referred to Ministry of Foreign Affair report NO 001132/MoFA, dated 28 February 2017

Referred to Prime minister’s agreement and suggestion, dated 23 March 2017.

Prime Minister Office would like to inform Prime minister’s suggestion to you like these:

1. Disagree to buy-sell and send 16 elephants to DUbie, United Arab Emirate, because it’s contrary to law of Lao PDR.

2. to Ministry of Foreign Affairs should send the official letter to governor of DUbie, United Arab Emirate to inform that Lao government disagree to send elephants

3. to Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and governor of Xayabouly Province should discuss for establishing the project to help community ( owner of elephants ) to ensure ability to generate revenue for fund raising elephants and important to ensure propagation of elephants to sustainability.

Minister, Head of Prime Minister Office


End Quote

Questions are now being asked by the global conservation fraternity how credible Emirates’ stand on wildlife actually is, given suspicions and allegations in regard to the main drivers behind the importation of elephant, which seems to be repeated now after news broke that Namibia has stepped up to export several of their young elephant to Dubai. Will Emirates be flying those elephants from Windhoek or will, given the negative publicity now unfolding, perhaps another less scrupulous cargo airlines do the deed?

In Kenya has Dr. Paula Kahumbu’s campaign of ‘Hands Off Our Elephant‘ created major obstacles to wildlife traders and the illicit trade in ivory, rhino horn and other prohibited wildlife products and it can only be hoped that similar efforts will globally unfold to stop exporting Africa’s wildlife to totally unsuitable climes for the entertainment of local leaders, locals and tourists.

Those latter ones, as should the former, better board their passenger flights by airlines like Emirates to Eastern and Southern Africa and coming to Africa to hunt – as sadly many Middle Eastern ‘rulers and their families and hangers on‘ still do – but to see our wildlife in its natural habitat and help preserve it for future generations.