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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Thai Elephants - A Dynatsy or a Legacy?

Bangkok, like any large city has it’s share of animal problems, perhaps more so than others,

Le Grand Eléphant // The Great ElephantImage by Stéfan via Flickr

among them snakes that occasionally cause panic and the city's omnipresent mangy stray dogs, which have been known to bite pedestrians. But elephants stand apart because they are revered as noble beasts, collected by kings and used as the tanks of the battlefield.

Before motor vehicles took over, elephants were the taxis of the rich and the workhorses of rural Thailand, especially prized for their help in clearing thick swaths of jungle. It was not until the late 1980s, when the government banned logging that many elephants found themselves unemployed.

Some elephants found jobs in the tourism industry, vessels for jungle trekkers and amusing Farang with their ability to paint or play in an "elephant band." For others, the unemployment queue led to Bangkok.

Map of Thailand highlighting Surin Province}Image via Wikipedia

The government has experimented, unsuccessfully, with several projects to confine the elephants to Thailand's rural hinterland. In 2002, elephants and their mahouts were offered jobs in national parks. For various reasons, it failed, in the main due to isolation issues. In 2006, the government started another project offering to subsidise income for the mahouts if they agreed to live in a designated area in Surin, about 400 kilometers, or 250 miles, northeast of Bangkok, but logistics and natural resources continue to dwindle it’s continuation.

map shows location of Suri in Red

Surin Province is home to 1,000 + about a quarter of all domesticated Babar’s. The mahouts from this area generally Gouay people, a small ethnic group that speak predominant language related to Khmer and history shows they possess special skills in capturing wild elephants from the jungle.

Elephants were not designed to dawdle down the city streets. For many years these giants have

BANGKOK, THAILAND - SEPTEMBER 26: A mahout (el...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

plodded through the Concrete Jungle, stopping at red-light districts and tourist areas where their handlers peddle elephant fuel of sugar cane husks and bananas to passers-by.

Mahouts (elephant driver) bring their elephants into the city for the same reasons that the sons and daughters of rice farmers try their luck as waiters, golf caddies and massage therapists in Bangkok: “Money”.

The average income is around 2,000 baht per day from selling sugar cane husks to passers-by, good money in a country where a typical factory wage is 8,000 baht a month.
The police shrug, politicians periodically order crackdowns and animal lovers despair. The

BANGKOK, THAILAND - SEPTEMBER 26: An adult ele...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Mahouts get fine many times (about 300 baht) but like a business expense it’s a calculated against profit. The elephants go where the opportunities present (merry tourists), like the Nana red-light district, a warren of go-go bars in Bangkok's bustling Sukhumvit neighborhood. “Babar” adds to the carnival-like atmosphere of thumping music, hawkers dressed in hill-tribe costumes and bar girls twirling around poles in bathing suits.

A stray Dumbo Task Force was created back in 2006 (it included

BANGKOK, THAILAND - FEBRUARY 28: Supporters ho...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

undercover enforcers) but it didn't keep the elephants from their rounds of tourism touting. Occasionally Babar (it’s better than Dumbo!) knocks off the side-view mirrors from cars or stumble into gutters and cut themselves on sharp objects.

"To be honest, nobody wants the job of policing beasts or detaining the elephants' handlers, because they fear they will not be able to control the animals on their own. An rampaging elephant can destroy cars and make trouble - and then who will be responsible for the damage."

20090326 – baby elephantImage by Debby A via Flickr

Records suggest there some 4,000 domesticated elephants in Thailand today, only a fraction come into Bangkok – perhaps no more than 6 to 12 in any one night but in a city this size it’s easy to miss them.

There are many distinct laws that can be used to arrest mahouts but, it’s the complexity of administrating the paradox.

A note of caution for the drunken tourists who enjoy patting the elephants on backside and the Thai bar girls who duck under elephants' bellies in the belief it brings good luck. Elephants, are powerful, restless creatures prone to rebellion.

Catch them on the wrong side of tolerance and Babar not more when the beast is tempered the result is brutal.

Read our Forum members story (includes Dramatic pictures)

I hope some of us remember Babar for many years this beast brought smiles to my daughters...


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