Undercover on the heels of the street elephants....

Dear All

   You may have noticed that I have been less than garrulous of late when it comes to this little newsletter, that's because I have been on the road a bit and the hotels I have been staying in don't stretch to internet, in fact, some of them stretch to call themselves hotels.

   Circumstances arose that made it sensible for me to check the temperature of the street elephant community and to perhaps look at bring a couple more off the road - more on this later in year - and so K. Lord, K. Amp and I took off.

   The news is, as usual, more complicated than it at first appears.

   Firstly, the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre rescue team have got enough funding to do their job and are doing it so thoroughly that there are no elephants on the streets of Bangkok or Pattaya, so said the Surin mahouts, so said the taxi drivers - the TECC themselves said they couldn't guarantee it but they know they have made life difficult for the street mahouts and have 13 baby elephants in custody pending DNA tests.

   Good work all round - we visited the detention centre and, apart from the camp commandant having a tendency to talk to everyone as though they were a dog, were happy to see the eles being well looked after in a forest atmosphere.  If the detention continues for any length of time we'll have to see if we can send them bananas to keep their jumbo prisoners fed.

   We found half a dozen or so outlaw street elephants, split up and out of the way in small towns.  In my field notes there are places like "Behind the big tree next to the coffee shop, next to the oil refinery"; "On the wasteland behind the purple house"; "In the partially abandoned buildings opposite Big C supermarket".

   About 50% were old mahout family mahouts with their family elephant, still trying to make a living the only way they could think of.  The other half were business mahouts with shiny trucks and prematurely split babies - including evidence of a new and worrying practice, a group travelling with a non-descript covered pick-up and a very baby elephant.  At the first sign of the TECC the baby's bundled into the back and hidden - this way the youngest elephants can be smuggled past all but the most inquisitive check point.

   A lot of the street elephants have gone back to Surin where they will struggle to find fodder and money to survive - Amp and K. Lord went up there to find out the full story and we hope to have a full report within the next week or so.

   The good news is that, despite the bad living areas and stressful lifestyle most of the old time mahouts were looking after their elephants to the best of their ability, genuinely saw this as their only option given the lack of fodder and work at home but, equally importantly, expressed a wish to change their way of life - mainly due directly to the T.E.C.C's increased ability to patrol and arrest these elephants.

   Those business mahouts were less willing to come in from the cold, but they will be caught and if their babies are illegal or unregistered the T.E.C.C. now has the facility to prove this (with the help of the Surin vets and our terse camp commandant) using D.N.A. technology and to confiscate to Lampang on a permanent basis.

   All in all a traumatic but enlightening and uplifting few days.

   There is hope!


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