BANGKOK — 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 creation of a Stray Elephant Task Force in 2006 did not keep the elephants off city streets. Nor did the team of undercover elephant enforcers who periodically cruise through Bangkok on motorcycles scouting for the beasts.
“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.”
The government says there are 3,837 domesticated elephants in Thailand today. Only a tiny fraction come into Bangkok — usually no more than half a dozen each evening — but they are hard to miss. Many Thais say they serve as a daily reminder of the inequalities in Thailand, the gap between provincial poverty and urban wealth.
Mahouts bring their elephants into the city for the same reasons that the sons and daughters of rice farmers try their luck as waiters, golf caddies and massage therapists in Bangkok: they need the money.
But to critics, elephants in the city highlight the persistent impunity of lawbreakers in Thailand, a country with no shortage of rules but gaping lapses in enforcement. Thailand has eight distinct laws that can be used to arrest mahouts who bring elephants into the city, rules that cover moving violations, wildlife protection, public health and urban tidiness.
“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.
When the night life quiets down, Mr. Nattawut leads his elephant by an ear to an abandoned lot on the outskirts of the city where he and the animal sleep.
Greater Bangkok, with more than 10 million residents sprawled across an area nearly three times the size of Rhode Island, has many animal problems, among them snakes that occasionally cause panic when they slither into homes and the city’s ubiquitous and mangy stray dogs, which have been known to bite pedestrians.
But elephants stand apart because for centuries they have been considered noble beasts, collected by kings and used in preindustrial times as the tanks of the battlefield.
Like pandas for China, they were also tools of diplomacy. In the 19th century, King Mongkut offered a few pairs of elephants to the American government, thinking it might help cement a budding friendship between the countries.
(Abraham Lincoln, president at the time, replied that the United States might not have a favorable climate for the animals. “Our political jurisdiction,” Lincoln wrote, “does not reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant.”)
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.
Eight years ago, former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun lamented that when Thais saw elephants walking down the streets in Bangkok, “we are not only sorry for the elephant but we’re also ashamed of ourselves.”
“The elephant was a symbol of honor, of dignity and leadership,” he said, “but today it has become the symbol of the failures and injustices of Thailand’s development.”
Since those comments were made, the government has experimented, unsuccessfully, with two projects to confine the elephants to Thailand’s rural hinterland.
In 2002, elephants and their mahouts were offered jobs as scouts in national parks. The project failed because it was underfinanced and the elephants and their trainers were “lonely,” said Kritapon Sala-ngam, secretary of the Thai Elephant Association, a nonprofit group.
In 2006, the government started the “Bring Elephants Home” project, offering to pay mahouts 8,000 baht a month if they agreed to live in a specially designated area in Surin, a province about 250 miles northeast of Bangkok.
However, the area is short on water and tall grass — the staple of the elephants’ ravenous daily diet of 50 gallons of water and food equivalent to 10 percent of their body weight. (Thai elephants weigh an average of about 5,500 pounds.) The project started with 181 elephants but is down to 64, Mr. Kritapon said.
Surin Province is home to 1,005, or about one-quarter, of Thailand’s domesticated elephants.
Their mahouts are generally Gouay people, a small ethnic group that speaks a language distantly related to Khmer and that for centuries specialized in the art of capturing wild elephants from the jungle.
Weerasak Pintawong, the chief veterinarian at the National Institute of Elephant Research and Health Services in Surin, said the concentration of elephants was a big problem.
“There are too many elephants in Surin, and there’s not enough money,” he said.
Mr. Weerasak, who treats wounded and sick elephants from around the country, said it was common for elephants to be injured by cars. Often, he said, young elephants will carelessly bump into parked vehicles and bruise themselves.
“Sometimes they fall into a hole,” Mr. Weerasak said. “Sometimes the elephant is frustrated at being commanded too much, and it runs away.”
Yet unlike many city people who hold romantic notions about elephants, Mr. Weerasak and others who train the animals have a more practical view. They offer a note of caution for the drunken tourists who enjoy patting the elephants on their backsides and the Thai bar girls who duck under elephants’ bellies in the belief that it brings good luck.
Elephants, Mr. Weerasak said, are powerful, restless creatures prone to rebellion.
The single most appropriate word for them, he said, is “fierce.”