Partner Spotlight: A Noble Cause

21 June 2021
Duncan McNair, you’re a partner at Spencer West specialising in contested probate and commercial/corporate litigation. In addition to your legal work, you’re perhaps best known for your highly influential campaign to protect and preserve an iconic and seriously endangered species, the Asian elephant. What triggered your campaign?

Thank you, Ian. In 2012 I was asked by the RSPCA to chair a wide-ranging national inquiry into the condition of farmed animals and the adequacy of applicable welfare standards, supported by the relevant Cabinet Minister and distinguished academics and practising vets. I led the writing of what became known as the McNair Report (2013), which resulted in the RSPCA Assured scheme, aimed at improving the wellbeing of billions of farmed animals globally.

After this I was keen to do more pro bono charitable work. I started hearing of the horrors affecting Asian elephants held in captivity for commercial exploitation. I felt I must look into this. I planned carefully for my first trip to India, in 2014. The unspeakable brutality and violence that I witnessed to elephants snatched from the wild has not left me – total isolation of highly sociable, vulnerable babies and adolescents, dehydrated, starved, their crying and screams whilst beaten and stabbed with spikes, hooks, chains (known as “pajan” – the breaking of the spirits) to instil constant fear, submission and easy use in tourism. Half of these gentle creatures do not survive the ordeal. Those that do endure a shortened life of unspeakable cruelty and a drawn-out, painful death from a thousand abuses – to swell the coffers of the owners and of global travel companies, so many marketing in the UK.

My research into charities working in this field indicated better ways the problem could be addressed, and had to be if the species was to be recovered from the brink. I founded Save The Asian Elephants (“STAE”) in early 2015. I was lucky to attract to STAE many people of great standing across conservation, academia, politics, the law, and campaigning. The immediate need was to raise levels of public awareness of the horrors, long suppressed by the travel industry, and to link support to coherent and credible policies for real change. Sensitivity to religious and cultural considerations has been important, whilst making clear animal abuse has no place in the sacred texts of any of the faiths of SE Asia.

You must have been in some danger as a visitor seeking to expose these practices?

In the grounds of a Hindu temple in Kerala, South India, I and a travelling companion (a local professor) were surrounded by a group of eight angry mahouts, young men who “manage” the elephants, armed with bull hooks (for use on their charges). I was protesting the abuse of a small elephant forced into a “crushing cage” (or kraal) for pajan. The danger was real enough and we could only back away. A similar incident occurred when I was threatened by a small crowd as I photographed the hideous leg wounds of a festival elephant, injured, exhausted, covered in a heavy costume and iron objects, dehydrated and near to collapse in the burning sun.

Do you experience opposition, and how does this compare with the levels of support you receive?

The opposition STAE faces is negligible set against the support received for our policies. Driving up public awareness and demonstrating this to every constituency of influence has been key to STAE’s progress. Our petition at nearly 1.1m is the largest in history for the species, backed by 32m signatories of other petitions aligning with STAE’s. Polling shows 90% of Britons back our policies, and rising. Every audience I have addressed – in the Westminster and European Parliaments, universities and vet schools, temples and churches, professional, business and celebrity groups, journalists, and the general public through all media – has been horrified to learn the facts and overwhelmingly supportive. 100 influencers and celebrities from Ricky Gervis to Dame Jane Goodall, Chris Packham to Joanna Lumley, Prime Ministers and Princes, every major religion, every Westminster party, leading environmentalists, field experts and academics, ¬Asian and not, support STAE’s call for new laws to ban unethical advertising.

Less can be said of some bodies paid to represent large parts of the travel industry, despite our best efforts to make common cause. STAE is frequently misrepresented by vested commercial interests. Our immediate policy for new UK law to ban the marketing, promotion and sale of access to unethical Asian elephant-related venues is routinely misstated as a ban on all elephant tourism. This is untrue: STAE works with and promotes genuine, ethical sanctuaries where elephants can be seen at a respectful and safe distance, exhibiting natural behaviour in a herd environment. What we oppose are the tens of thousands of “attractions” across the world (including the West) where elephants are coerced by violence into unnatural, agonising “tricks”, handstands, football, cycling, rides, selfies. Moreover, close contact with elephants is highly dangerous for humans too – abused elephants provoked beyond their endurance regularly attack and kill. They are also highly effective transmitters when they cough, sneeze, or spray water of deadly airborne viruses like TB, SARS, Ebola and, it’s now believed, Covid-19.

What are the alternatives to the current unsatisfactory status quo?

The status quo is disastrous for this ancient, noble species, brought to the brink of extinction by brutal tourism and reckless habitat destruction. STAE has so far identified in the UK alone hundreds of cruel and dangerous elephant venues being promoted by over 1,000 travel businesses to millions of customers. Booming tourism in the Asia-Pacific region, fastest growing in the world, will resume when restrictions lift. 13m elephant rides occur yearly in Thailand alone. Asian elephant numbers have crashed from millions in 1900 to barely 40,000 today, 40% of those in non-breeding captivity.

Self-regulation by the travel industry having failed, and endless promises of change broken, compulsion of law is essential to stem supply (and then demand) of the vast trade in such abuse. STAE has developed policies not contingent on the concurrence of vested interests or indigenous governments, but on what we in the UK can achieve by relentless exposition of the facts and proper pressure upon our own government.

Elephants are wild animals, like lions and tigers. They should be in the wild, living natural lives, unmolested by humans whose arrival on Earth they long predated. If in the wild they are at risk from human predation, they should be protected in genuine sanctuaries. If taken captive, and bent to our commercial imperative, any training should be by what is termed “positive reinforcement”, as was the way in the past. Elephants have astonishing cognitive powers and understanding that enable co-operation to extraordinary lengths – they do not need to be brutalised to comply. Man has de facto dominion of this planet. We also have a duty to protect, not pillage, our common inheritance.

What stage is the campaign at now?

STAE has been engaging with government at No 10 and beyond, intensively so under the current administration. Zac (now Lord) Goldsmith – a first-rate Environment minister – asked that I provide draft legislation. STAE is delighted that government has adopted this with an Animals Abroad Bill this autumn, to ban low-welfare Asian elephant related holiday advertising. We continue working closely with government to pilot this measure through the turbulent seas of the parliamentary process.

STAE considers such a ban readily portable to other countries across the West and beyond. By a global effort this tide of abuse can be stemmed. And although Asian elephants suffer uniquely from abusive tourism, such laws can stand adapted for other species too.

Is there a reason why so many of your supporters and volunteers are also lawyers?

I would hope because lawyers are attracted to justice-related issues, but perhaps also because we can swim where complexities and sensitivities abound.

Do you think your charity work is beneficial to your legal work, and vice versa?

Certainly. The benefits operate back and forth. The nature of a lawyer’s training and discipline helps immensely in formulating, articulating, and projecting STAE’s work. Excavating the evidence, building a case, effective communication, teamwork are all essential to what STAE, and what I believe any lawyer, should strive for. In both areas there can be political considerations, language challenges, commercial issues. None of these complexities should ever be a reason for saying “Let’s not bother”. In both areas we learn to stand fast to what is right.

What else do you do in your spare time?

I do an amount of local community work. I’m also the author of The Morello Letters and More Morello letters, humour books featuring a fictional Italian family in suburban London who keep a menagerie of animals and write to public figures such as archbishops and politicians seeking advice, often on matters of animal husbandry. The books comprise the letters sent and the (genuine) replies from the great and the good. I was amazed when the Morellos hit No 1 for parody on Amazon. Work can be challenging and the Morellos are a great antidote!

Duncan, it’s been a privilege talking to you. Thank you.
Ian McDowell
ESG Director
Ian McDowell is the Community Engagement Director at Spencer West.