Thailand's police have told Khomsan Somphan that if they arrest him one more time, they're going to take away his elephant. Khomsan was nabbed by Bangkok cops near a red-light district for offering tourists a chance to feed sugarcane to his elephant, Srithong (Gold), for 50¢ a handful. It's against the law to bring an elephant into the capital, but Khomsan says he had no choice. There's no work for Srithong in his poor northeastern province of Surin. "At least here she can eat," says the 23-year-old mahout. "Back home there is nothing."
That predicament has brought at least 60 elephants and their mahouts to the Thai capital's traffic-choked streets, and Bangkok Governor Bhichit Rattakul wants them all out of his city. He has ordered the police to get tough, but the mahouts don't scare easily. "They've arrested me 10 times already this year," Khomsan says. "They won't take her. They don't want her. What are they going to do with an elephant?"
That's a question troubling many Thais. The elephant is their national symbol, but there seems to be no place for the domesticated beast in today's Thailand. When the country was known as Siam, mighty elephants carried its kings into battle and were emblazoned on its flag. Pachyderms still adorn royal seals, temple walls, tourism advertisements, corporate logos--even cans of beer. King Bhumibol Adulyadej keeps 11 white elephants, mystical emblems of a monarch's power, pampered in royal paddocks.
But thousands of others face a meaner fate. Their forest habitat has been decimated by loggers, farmers and developers. Their usefulness as menial labor and a means of transportation has virtually been eliminated by technology. So hundreds of mahouts have led their elephants to the cities, where they are essentially reduced to begging.
The elephants are not alone in their suffering. Countless rural Thais have also lost their land to dams and development projects, ending up in Bangkok in search of work or to protest in front of parliament. Perhaps, in their own sad way, the elephants are still a meaningful national symbol.
That's no consolation for animal-rights activists. "Every year elephants suffer and die in the city," says Roger Lohanan of the Thai Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Lohanan urges people not to feed the elephants so the mahouts won't bring them to Bangkok. The countryside isn't any kinder, however. More than 1,000 elephants slave away in the shadowy world of illegal logging; many are fed amphetamines to make them work harder. When their drug-addicted bodies give out, they are abandoned and left to die. Some have been shot or poisoned by farmers for eating their crops. Others have stepped on landmines near the Burmese border. The relatively lucky ones give rides and perform for the tourist trade. Even this activity, however, is prone to abuse. Gangs slaughter mothers in the wild to capture their babies and sell them to the shows.
"If something isn't done, then one day our elephants, like the dinosaurs, will be extinct," says Soraida Sawala, president of Friends of the Asian Elephant, a conservation group. At the turn of the century, there were 100,000 domesticated elephants in Thailand, and many times that number in the wild. Now, there are fewer than 5,000 in all. More than 300 are roaming the streets of Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pattaya and other cities.
It's a hard life. Khomsan and two of his cousins spend their days in a plywood lean-to at an abandoned construction site. Srithong, who is 40 years old and five months pregnant, grazes on brush with six of her kind. As darkness falls, they start their seven-hour trek through Bangkok, pausing near hotels and go-go bars. Before the night is over, they will have walked 20 km. "It's mostly foreigners who feed Srithong," Khomsan says. Most tend to gape upon first spotting her. "They're the ultimate tourist attraction, although I'm not sure the city is good for them," says B.J. Worth, a filmmaker from Whitefish, Montana. Worth, his wife and daughters are all smiles, snapping photos as they feed Srithong. Beer-bellied Western men buy sugarcane for their bar-girl dates who giggle as Srithong plucks the sticks from their hands with her trunk. One Thai man pays to crawl under the elephant's belly for good luck.
This night, business is good. Khomsan thinks they may pull in $30. It takes $22 a day to feed Srithong, so the mahout and his cousins will have enough left over to feed themselves--if they don't get arrested again. But they might. Now Governor Bhichit wants to put microchips in the elephants so police can track them down. Not that finding a 3.3-ton elephant lumbering amid the concrete and glass towers is all that hard. "We don't need microchips," says Khomsan. "We need a place to live and work that will sustain us." Until they have those things, the mahouts and their elephants will keep coming to Bangkok. "They can arrest us all they like," Khomsan says, "but I just don't see any other way to survive."