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The great elephant exodus

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

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.”