No longer a voice in the wilderness (do we hear faint echoes?)
Those of you who have been around the block with us will know that, sometime in 2004 we came to the conclusion that buying street elephants to rescue them was counterproductive and dangerous to other elephants, a mahout with money in his pocket buys another elephant, often possibly wild caught and smuggled in from our neighbours, often split too early from its mother. Even a market for retirement age elephants will tend to stop (has stopped?) the practice of donating them to Government retirement centres - if I have an elephant who can no longer work, no-one offers life insurance or retirement plans for elephants (though we're working on a few of the insurance companies) does it not make sense to bring it into the path of a well meaning sanctuary agent, bring it into the city, and have someone pay over the odds for it.
With this money I put a downpayment on a new, younger, ele and continue my mahouting life.
To get around this we put together a Rescue Rental method which brings the mahout and his family off the streets as well - cannot give them the money they made down there, but can give them, their family and their elephants a decent quality of life.
After five years of doing this it is still a work-in-progress but it seems to be showing positive results, from the Foundation baby camp we've had no elephants return to the streets, from the Anantara mahout training camp we have had three leave, one to ceremonial duties back in their home village, one to be a film star and one back to the streets.
That's three in thirty seven - a 90% + success rate, of course it is harder work, we not only need to routinely provide a decent quality of life we need to ensure that we (too) are not taken advantage of and, of course, in the long term, it will prove far more expensive to continue renting the elephants so I'll have to continue to find donors and go to the bosses cap-in-hand.
However, since there seems to be a greater supply of elephants than there is of mahouts and the real mahouts would not consider making a living (to the point, it seems, of starving - dyin' ain't much of a living, boy) any other way it strikes me that a solution that doesn't involve keeping the mahouts as mahouts and concentrates on emotionally helping a particular elephant just can't be sustainable in a world where traditional mahouts and the Thai population in general need domestic elephants (again, an open debate on whether domestic elephants are truly a necessity would be an interesting one). Particularly a world in which businessmen (including mahout businessmen - we've never argued that all mahouts are saints, in fact falling foul of the mahout businessmen in the early days helped formulate the current Modus Operandi) are willing to drive a smuggling-for-the-street trade.
Now, to me this is common sense and I've been rattling on forever on the same subject (to the extent that regular readers - flattering myself that such creatures exist - will have switched off by now) and it is so close to just normal conservation thinking that I wondered why it hadn't cropped up elsewhere.
Well, I can't believe the Bangkok Post reads these 'ere pages, I don't believe we've espoused these thoughts (well, for a year or two) to the elephant buying-to-rescue programmes - preaching to folks that have been doing things their way for years is not a good way to make friends.
However, over the past few months quite a few people seem to have begun quoting this piece of common sense conservation theory out into the ether and general paparazzi consciousness, a C.N.N. researcher even quoted an old blog to me, almost verbatim, as having come from elsewhere in the Thai ele-rescuosphere - which may be kind of flattering.
The idea makes so much sense I'm sure it was arrived at independently wherever it cropped up but it is good to hear our own thoughts quoted back at us and I really do believe that the more organisations that begin to practice along these lines the quicker we can move onto larger problems.
EDITORIAL Plight of the jumbos
- Published: 17/08/2009 at 12:00 AM
- Newspaper section: News
The various projects to help the elephants of Bangkok have finally begun to take shape. Thanks to public donations, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration has been able to purchase a 30-year-old, partially blind animal. Instead of begging for food in the dangerous capital city, Pang Bua Kham will get a home at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang. The rescue of this elephant is a heart-warming story, and a project that deserved the support it got.
It is not so clear, however, that general plans to continue to raise money to send elephants to the countryside is sustainable or worthwhile. The well-meaning programme could just wind up encouraging owners to bring their animals to Bangkok in a never-ending elephant march seen more as a profitable business than a rescue project.
The idea of involving the public in a programme to adopt elephants began to take shape about two months ago. BMA Governor MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra announced the formal start to the project on July 3, and predicted the capital city would be elephant-free by next July 2. City inspectors were dispatched once again to do a census of elephants inside metropolitan Bangkok, and to insert microchips under the skin of each animal, to allow formal cataloguing of the pachyderms. According to the governor, they found "about 100" elephants begging in Bangkok.
The lack of a precise number could illustrate the enormous problems involved in trying to keep track of these massive beasts. Elephant owners have traditionally brought their animals to Bangkok to raise money through begging when they could not find regular work, such as logging in the provinces. But in recent years, more and more mahout and owners have been bringing the elephants into Bangkok as an alternative to the harder work up-country. Bangkok residents, like all Thais, love elephants. Many are superstitious, and owners are able to exploit this into cash from people who pay to walk under the elephant's stomach.
In short, many elephants already are treated by their owners as begging machines rather than workers. This demeans both the owner and elephant. The Thai national symbol is not an elephant performing tricks in order to sell overpriced bananas to the public. Elephants are revered for their historical, cultural contribution to the nation as a worker and a faithful animal.
The programme to purchase all elephants in Bangkok in order to get them off the streets confuses two competing ideas. The first is that elephants should not be roaming the streets of the capital where they often are struck by vehicles, suffering injuries or worse. They should not be reduced to tricks or to begging on behalf of their owners. But the second aim must be to give the animals dignity. It is unclear that the plan to buy up elephants willy-nilly can do this.
The great danger is that domestic elephants will become part of an organised sales effort. Mahouts will bring a steady procession of elephants to Bangkok to demand a profitable price from the city and its charitable citizens - and then go back to the countryside to get another one. Such a programme inevitably will mean that unscrupulous businessmen will encourage capturing wild elephants and putting them into the same programme.
The problem of elephants in Bangkok is complex and cannot be solved only by applying baht. The heart of the city is in the right place. But purchasing elephant after elephant merely to get them off the streets is unlikely to solve the plight of these great animals.