DISPATCH: ELEPHANT COUNTRY

Someone Isn't Enjoying the Ride

 Ceremonial dunking -- elephants inthe mahout training class spray and dunk their students.  Boon rot is using her trunk to spray.
Ceremonial dunking -- elephants inthe mahout training class spray and dunk their students. Boon rot is using her trunk to spray. (Alexander Feshenko.)
By Mike Snow
Sunday, May 4, 2008

GOLDEN TRIANGLE, Thailand

At Anantara elephant camp, I met Boon Rot, all 10 feet and three or so tons of her, as she breakfasted on bamboo stalks. I'd come to the resort to take part in mahout, or elephant handler, training, and Boon Rot was my assigned animal. Until recently, she'd had the misfortune of roaming Bangkok's red-light districts, exploited for novelty value by her mahout, who sold tourists and other amused onlookers bananas to feed her.

Her rescue by Anantara's "director of elephants," John Roberts, meant that she'd be riding tourists around instead. Not the perfect solution, former elephant conservationist Roberts acknowledged, but a big improvement for this 17-year-old tusker, who would no longer have to face down cars, drunks and other dangers of the concrete jungle.

Long revered for their intelligence and sensitivity, elephants are Thailand's national animal. Elephant Day is celebrated on March 13. A white elephant appeared on the country's flag until 1917. The animals once paraded members of the royal family, served as super-weapons in Southeast Asian armies and worked in the forests, hauling logs for the Thai lumber trade.

But encroaching civilization and a 1989 ban on logging sent the pachyderm population into a tailspin. From about 100,000 at the turn of the 20th century, its numbers have steadily dwindled to a meager head count, as of last June, of 3,456 domesticated animals and another 1,000 or so in the wild. These latter face an increasingly bleak future, hunted both by vengeful farmers whose crops they sometimes ruin and by ivory hunters who covet their tusks.

Though about 300 elephants still live on the streets of Thai cities, Boon Rot and the more fortunate of her peers have found a way station at trekking camps such as Anantara. These camps are highly popular with tourists, but many are notorious among animal rights groups, which say that they are maltreating the creatures. This was something I didn't learn until after my camp experience, but it left me with a decidedly mixed feeling about the whole thing.

Boon Rot seemed impossibly huge, and the thought of mounting her gave me the heebie-jeebies. But after hoisting myself up and coiling my legs around her massive neck, I realized that she was something of a pussycat. Riding her turned out to be easier than it looked. As we plodded along the trail, I gradually lost my fear of falling off. Class ended on a high note when we students removed our tennis shoes and waded into a river on our elephants for a refreshing swim. After climbing back onto the riverbank, the animals returned our shoes, one at a time, with their trunks. We rewarded them with bananas and then posed for a final round of picture-taking. Marj, a British tourist who suffered from multiple sclerosis, called the experience "one of the best things I ever did."

The riding was certainly exhilarating. But is it the best thing for the elephants? A look into the crinkly, soulful eyes of Boon Rot and her peers leaves little doubt that serving tourists at Anantara, a kind of halfway house for elephants attached to a five-star resort, beats sleeping beneath garbage-strewn highway underpasses. But the elephant camps aren't all equal.

Anantara, run by the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, appears to offer one of the better elephant programs, promoting wildlife conservation and the preservation of rural life, and offering mahouts and their families a chance to earn a living wage. It also caters to high-end tourists and is therefore well funded. But elephants eat 10 percent of their body weight daily, so many camps that operate on the margin feel pressured to work their pachyderms hard to cover the cost of their upkeep.

Most complaints of elephant abuse focus on the way the animals are tamed. Anantara employs a humane but time-consuming "tickling" method, but many camps still use phaajaan (the Thai word for "crush"), a method of domesticating baby elephants that has been practiced in Thailand for thousands of years. This ceremony involves separating youngsters from their mothers, tying them up in a confined space, jabbing them with knives, heated irons, burning cigarettes and bamboo sticks embedded with nails, pummeling them with stones and other projectiles and depriving them of food, water and sleep. It lasts for up to six days, until a shaman senses that the elephant's spirit is broken. Afterward, the animal is never again permitted to see its mother.

Animal rights groups condemn not only the phaajaans but also "imprisoning" the animals and training them to perform tricks. "Elephants don't have to dance, paint pictures or roll logs," says Ashley Furno, senior campaign coordinator for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). "We're interested in protecting them so that they can remain in the wild, free to spend their days foraging for food, bathing and interacting with their families and other elephants." In 2003, PETA mounted an ongoing Asia-wide ad campaign protesting elephant abuse that has garnered attention in Germany, Sweden, Singapore, the United Kingdom and other countries that have traditionally contributed to Thai tourism.

But because the elephant camps are privately run, Thai officials find it difficult to address abuses. Moreover, repeated turnover in governments -- there have been three in 20 months -- means that any high-level directives don't stick for long, and interest in the issue waxes and wanes. Officials have focused for the most part on providing limited veterinary care. A project sponsored by the queen to send elephants back into the wild has had measured success, but Soraida Salwala, founder of the private group Friends of the Asian Elephant, charges that government support for the sale of other elephants to Australian zoos for a scientific breeding program helps promote the wildlife trade.


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