Monday, January 21, 2008

The Elephant in the Sauna

When forest clearing elephants are outlawed, only outlaws employ elephants:
Of all the illegal activities that animate the streets of Bangkok — the vendors who hawk pirated DVDs and fake watches, the brothels that call themselves saunas — one stands out more than others.

Elephants are not supposed to saunter down the city’s streets as they do almost every night. For at least two decades the giant gray beasts have plodded through this giant gray city, stopping off at red-light districts and tourist areas where their handlers peddle elephant snacks of sugar cane and bananas to passers-by.

Occasionally the elephants knock off the side-view mirrors from cars or stumble into gutters and cut themselves on sharp objects.

The police shrug, politicians periodically order crackdowns and animal lovers despair.

The police shrug for sound reasons:
“To be honest, nobody wants to do this job, nobody wants to deal with the elephants,” said Prayote Promsuwon, who is in charge of the Stray Elephant Task Force, which was formed after an elephant handler, fleeing the police, raced his elephant the wrong way down a large Bangkok boulevard, causing traffic chaos.

The police shy away from detaining the elephants’ handlers, also known as mahouts, because the officers fear they will not be able to control the animals on their own.

“This is a dangerous job,” Mr. Prayote said. “An angry elephant can destroy cars and make trouble — and then we have responsibility for the damage.”

And, as always, the incentives matter:
“We’ve been fined many times,” said Nattawut Inthong, a 24-year-old mahout who travels around Bangkok with his 2-year-old elephant, Gra-po.

Mr. Nattawut treats the fine of 300 baht, about $10, like a business expense: he pays it and moves on. Most evenings he parades Gra-po through the Nana red-light district, a warren of go-go bars in Bangkok’s bustling Sukhumvit neighborhood. The elephant adds to the carnival-like atmosphere created by thumping music, hawkers dressed in hill-tribe costumes and bar girls twirling around poles in bathing suits.

Mr. Nattawut makes about 2,000 baht a day, or about $67, selling sugar cane to passers-by, good money in a country where a typical factory wage is 8,000 baht (about $269) a month.

Especially since other employment has been closed off:
Before motor vehicles took over, elephants were the taxis of the rich and the workhorses of rural Thailand, especially prized for their help in clearing thick swaths of jungle. It was not until the late 1980s, when the government banned logging to save the nation’s dwindling forests, that hundreds of elephants found themselves unemployed.

Some elephants were given jobs in the tourism industry, carrying jungle trekkers and amusing visitors with their ability to paint or even play in an “elephant orchestra.” For others, the unemployment line led to Bangkok.

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