In Thai culture, no animal can rival the significance the elephant enjoys. In centuries past they ferried merchandise across the country, transported people over rough terrain, harvested timber and earned fame and notoriety for their fierce exploits in war. Thais regarded elephants as sacred creatures.
Capturing these beasts in the wild had to be done according to a ritual ceremony performed only by recognised “elephant masters”. Rare white elephants (actually with large patches of pink hide rather than white) were prized as auspicious signs of royal power and given to the King. To this day, high-level Thai officials are honoured with the royal insignia of the white elephant. For centuries the same symbol adorned the national flag, signalling to the world the importance Thailand attached to elephants.
The largest land mammal retained it cultural significance into modern times. Decades of rapid deforestation saw more elephants drawn into the timber industry. Many were tamed through torture to do laborious work and fed with amphetamines to increase their stamina. The heavy labour took its toll, often leaving elephants with leg injuries that crippled them for life. The government ban on harvesting natural forests brought an end to the timber concession era in 1989, and elephants were suddenly out of a job. But not for long, as the expansion of the tourism industry opened a new avenue.
To earn a living, elephants had to develop new skills as entertainers from bowing, kneeling and dancing to playing soccer and even painting portraits. To serve the growing tourism demand, more were captured from the wild, but this time without the ritual ceremony. Now, more often than not, hunters shoot the mother elephant and then snatch its young. The baby elephants are easier to train and tourists find them adorable.
Not all elephants find jobs in the tourism industry. Just as rural-urban migration is prevalent in many developing countries, so is the migration of elephants into cities such as Bangkok. Elephant mahouts earn subsistence income by walking their elephants along urban streets and simply begging for money. Seeing an elephant is irresistible for many Thais and they end up feeding them with bananas sold by the mahouts. This inter-dependency among the poor mahouts, the hungry elephants and the kindness of urban Thais prolongs the elephant-beggar business. Occasionally elephants walking along the streets are killed in road accidents.
The economic outlook for elephants is rather bright because they are now joining the boom in franchise coffee businesses. Just as franchise coffee chains became successful with premium coffee made from civet (cha-mod ) droppings, people are now feeding elephants with coffee beans and collecting their droppings in the hope of fetching premium prices similar to those generated by civets. This copycat product is expected to become part of the export trade soon.
The future of wild elephants, on the other hand, is still gloomy. The expansion of agriculture in Thailand was achieved not by an increase in farm productivity but more by an increase in the farming area. The expansion of agricultural products thus came at the expense of forest conservation areas, and hence the habitat of elephants. In Kanchanaburi province, when food and water in the forest reserves become scarce, elephants often wander out to eat pineapples on plantations. In recreational parks such as Khao Yai National Park, elephants are reportedly damaging passing automobiles on busy roads because their habitat is being disturbed.
The question has yet to be answered as to who owns the property rights. Are the elephants encroaching on farmland or are the farms encroaching on the elephants’habitat? Are the elephants trespassing on public roads in the national parks or have the roads usurped elephant territory? While humans mull the answers, many wild elephants are being shot by farmers, and others are being injured in road accidents or hunted down for their ivory and their young.
The ivory trade put Thailand on top of the watch list of the international wildlife community. In March the Thai government responded in a timely manner by passing the Ivory Act BE 2558, which aims to regulate the acquisition, ownership and trading of ivory. However, no law has ever been passed to address the overall welfare of elephants in Thailand. This policy bias of putting international demands before domestic needs is consistently practised and has become the norm in Thai diplomacy.
The elephant has come a long way from being a significant symbol on the national flag to a mere street performer. Elephants deserve their rightful place in Thai society – geographically, economically and spiritually. Thai people will need to think hard about how to strike a balance between ecological conservation, economic contribution and the spiritual significance of the country’s elephants.
Remember, no other animal in Thailand ever received such high recognition as elephants. Every year, Thais nationwide celebrate Elephant Day on March 13. When will the elephants be able to celebrate?
The author is a member of Thailand Development Research Institute
First Published: The Nation, May 23, 2015