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The great elephant exodus

Video: Bangkok's governor promises an elephant-free city by next summer. Fat chance?

A mahout and his son ride their elephant through the rising flood water from the Lopburi River in Ayutthaya, 50 miles north of Bangkok, Nov. 5, 2008. Efforts to return elephants to the countryside and so avoid miserable existences in the capital have so far flopped. (Sukree Sukplang/Reuters)

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.