The plight of domesticated elephants in Thailand

In Thailand there are nearly three times as many domesticated elephants as wild ones. This indicates massive past capture. But the numbers are deceptively reassuring. Over the past 30 years both captures and births have been very few, which means that the average age of many of Thailand's domesticated elephants is far older than that of a natural wild population.

Doubleclick on the picture to see mahouts bathing their elephants

The numbers of domesticated elephants are declining steadily and relentlessly, as are their employment opportunities. Since a ban on logging in 1990, the only timber work available for elephants is skidding illegally cut logs, a brutal job said to employ between 1 000 and 1 500 elephants. Tourism and entertainment now employ perhaps 10 percent of the national elephant population. One result has been the exhibition of very young calves who often die because they are separated from their mothers far too early.

Tragedies on the rise

Thailand's media have recently showcased a seemingly endless succession of tragedies among domesticated elephants. In 1993 Honey, a female calf from Surin wandering the north performing for money, was struck by a vehicle in Lamphun, breaking her pelvis. Moved to Bangkok's Dusit Zoo for treatment, she spent three months dying in the media's glare, the first of many cases widely covered by television and the press.

In 1995, a young bull named Jockey killed two men tending him and was then himself shot by officials, an act videotaped and later broadcast into millions of homes. In the same year a 23-year old bull named Phlai Petch became a front page controversy. After he had been constantly kept chained to a tree in a temple for years, his plight was decried in Time magazine. In 1996 he slipped his chains and entered a nearby community. When the police were called, he panicked and damaged some cars, whereupon he was dropped by a fusillade of over 100 bullets - all the while trying, according to some observers, to return to the safety of his chaining tree.

Elephants banned from Bangkok

Elephants are forced to wander the perilous major highways

The question of unsuitable and dangerous work came to a head when NGOs and the public became outraged at elephants being brought into Bangkok to wander the streets selling trinkets and bits of food for passers-by to purchase and feed to them. Finally, in response to public pressure and bad publicity, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration banned elephants from entering the city. Unfortunately, the men cannot go back permanently to their home villages, because there is neither income for the men nor food for the elephants. So the ban has not solved the problem but rather moved it elsewhere. Instead of confronting the pollution and traffic of a metropolis of 8 million people, more elephants are forced to wander the perilous major highways and the back roads of tourist sites. The dangers are different but no less severe than those in the city.

There are some bright signs. Thailand's domesticated elephants are lucky to be supported by two excellent NGOs, the Friends of the Asian Elephant, which works primarily in the north, and the Asian Elephant Foundation of Thailand, which works mostly in Surin. Unfortunately, limited by a lack of resources and personnel, their efforts, however heroic and important, can make but a small dent in the physical problem - although they serve an invaluable function in education and raising public awareness. Several government departments are beginning to realize the extent of the problem.

30 December 1998

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