The great elephant exodus

BANGKOK – It was a sad old beast, for sure.

As the elephant dragged its feet towards city hall, the chains draped from its neck swung like twin pendulums. The animal’s dusty skin fit loose on its 30-year-old body. Where a right eye belonged, there was only a crusty socket.

Such sorry condition is typical of Thailand’s street elephants. This particular pachyderm, named Pang Buakam by its owner, has squeezed along the city’s narrow lanes for more than 10 years. Like other urban elephants, Pang Buakam and its guide would ply tourists for a few dollars – the price to feed it a few bananas or “shake hands” with its trunk.

But the era of spare-changing elephants must end, Bangkok’s governor has declared.

Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra is heading an all-out push to rid Bangkok of elephants by next July. In Bangkok’s city hall plaza this week, the governor ceremonially purchased Pang Buakam – the campaign’s pitiful showpiece — and sent it to a jungle reserve.

If street elephants remain in Bangkok after next summer, the governor promised, “then I’ll personally ride them out of Bangkok myself.”

Sukhumbhand is not the first politician to promise an elephant-free Bangkok. This decade alone, two efforts to return elephants to the countryside en masse have flopped. Trolling them through the city is illegal, but handlers often get off with a police fine of $12 to $30 — worth risking for the $100-plus they can make during a weekend nightshift.

The handlers, known as “mahouts,” must pay the elephant’s owner roughly $230 to rent the beasts each month. Depending on the elephant’s size, it can cost another $200 or so per month to feed it, according to the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority.

Street elephants are prone to open sores, bone damage from walking on concrete and nasty auto accidents. Photos of toppled elephants leaking gallons of blood occasionally appear in the Thai press — a natural consequence of massive creatures negotiating Bangkok’s wild traffic. Even Sukhumbhand said that he once narrowly missed driving into a baby elephant as it napped on his street.

The governor’s elephant crackdown already shows promise. Though more than 200 different elephants were counted roaming Bangkok last year, the number is now as low as 70, said Deputy Governor Teerachon Manomaiphibul.

How did they do it? Thais from outer provinces typically return home for Thai New Year in April, as do urban elephants and their guides. After the pachyderms emptied out this year, police set up checkpoints to prevent them from returning.

Bangkok’s elephant population plummeted, Teerachon said.

The government has also stepped up raids. It’s using the full force of its admittedly weak elephant laws to detain the creatures for the maximum amount of time: 30 days. Soon, Teerachon said, officials hope to hike its meager fines up to nearly $3,000. “When we do this, the owner loses so much money,” he said. “It’s no longer affordable to send elephants into the streets.”

But the crackdown is balanced with a soft touch. The governor has corralled more than 20 foundations and corporate sponsors to buy up street elephants — starting with Pang Buakam — so they can be rehabilitated and led back into the jungles.

The government also wants to avoid forcing elephant owners further into the underworld. Pang Buakam’s owner, a slight woman in a plaid farmer’s shirt and knock-off turquoise Crocs, was invited to a city hall ceremony this week and seated with the governor and his team. A crowd watched, and applauded, as she signed over the elephant for an $8,820 check.

On the plaza outside, the governor draped the creature’s neck with a shiny, gold-colored necklace fitted with Bangkok’s provincial seal, which prominently features an elephant.

There too was Sathit Madee, the young guide who has logged many nights leading the elephant through the city’s neon-bright tourist strips. The crowd cheered as Pang Buakam boarded a flat-bed truck bound for a far northern reserve for geriatric elephants. But for Sathit, this was a parting of dear friends.

“I feel sorry for it. I don’t want it to walk the streets anymore,” he said. As for his future work plans? “I guess I’ll go farm rice.”