Eating elephants, a habit difficult to stomach?
This is an old, old oddity that first popped up onto my radar a couple of months ago and pricked my morbid fascination with all things elephant. Having previously bought you news of the taste of Vietnamese elephants, third hand through the palate of a starving exiled North Vietnamese politburo member and possibly mentioned my belief that the only Asian tradition for eating elephant meat was up on the Burmese/Indian border somewhere I was slightly taken aback to find this piece in the mainstream English language Thai press.
Apparently there is an ex-logging village in Phrae province of Thailand that has a taste for elephants also, reduced nowadays to actively seeking out carcasses of dead elephants and having them shipped up from Surin. The mayor and the Governor seem to believe this could become a tourist attraction but I'm not convinced, in fact, I have to admit that I hope it doesn't.
As is typical for me I tried to boil it down (if you'll pardon the pun) to the bare bones of the matter, could this odd habit become harmful to elephant conservation and the species? My feeling, after some debate with a far better conservationist than I who had some concerns, was not at this stage - given the price of a carcass is given at 30,000 baht and the market value of a live elephant is at least ten (& more like twenty) times that, there would be very little incentive for anyone to deliberately let their elephants die for this purpose - which would mean our poor villagers must be eating aged and diseased elephants which, one feels, can't be too good for their digestion.
Tourism provides another worry, as long as 30,000 baht is all you'll get for an elephant then I can't see much worry, the villagers stress that they never killed the elephants specifically for the meat or hunted wild elephants in the forest but it is not difficult to see the need for elephant meat as a 'tourist attraction' outstripping the supply leading to price increases - when your new found tourism livelhood, hotel or restaurant, depends on you having meat on the menu the cost of not having a carcass pushes that 30,000 higher.
Price increases can lead to temptations to try to tap into Thailand's wild herd: the catching of a live wild elephant is a complex and dangerous operation, once undertaken by large teams of highly skilled people, it would be difficult to achieve in secret - the logistics involved should, I feel, be enough to deter people from undertaking this illegal activity - however, the shooting of one for meat would, one assumes, be easier to hide and would require skills that don't need to be learned through generations.
The other conservation problem I could see is if there is still some wild capture going on illegally in the area and, given the alleged mortality rate, this could help recoup some of the costs - but I personally doubt this and if I were a lawmaker would see it more beneficial to stamp out the wild capture rather than outlaw an odd habit.
So, if I find myself in Phrae I might pop up to Wiang Thong for a beer and a sticky beak, but I don't think - even though I pride myself on never saying no to an odd meal - that I'll partake of the barbeque and I don't think we should encourage others to do so lest a seemingly harmless and more-than-slightly (and perhaps literally) distasteful habit turns into something more sinister.
Elephant eaters see no shame in jumbo meal
Villagers in Phrae province sustained by pachyderms in death, as they were in life
When elephant meat becomes available at a small village in Phrae province, fanciers of the rare meal are quick to buy up the treat.
PUT HIM TO WORK: Forestry officials use elephants in patrolling forests to prevent illegal logging in the North,
''On a day that elephant meat is available in the village, it is eagerly snapped up and sells out in no time,'' said Uncle Pao, 73, from Wiang Thong village in Sung Men district where elephant meat costs 100 baht a kilogramme. ''Nobody wants to buy other kinds of meat.''
Despite the cultural cringe of the national symbol finding its way on to the dinner plates of villagers, the people of Wiang Thong have no remorse about consuming elephant meat when they can.
Their ancestors had a close relationship with the animals which were used for logging, and the consumption of a carcass is simply viewed as the elephant providing sustenance for the villagers. The local governor believes it can become a tourist attraction, and the practice of eating elephant meat is already attracting curious onlookers from neighbouring provinces.
Wiang Thong village was once a vibrant logging area before the government ordered the closure of forests across the country in 1988 to prevent illegal logging.
Wilaiwan Chindamanee, 55, a female kamnan or sub-district chief of Wiang Thong district, said there were about 400 elephants in the village about 27 years ago.
At that time, elephants and their owners worked for the Forest Industry Organisation and logging provided most of the villagers with a livelihood.
CHOICE CUTS: Cut pieces of a dead elephant is prepared for sale and consumption in Wiang Thong village in Phrae,
Sanan Chindamanee, 55, a former kamnan of Wiang Thong, and husband of Mrs Wilaiwan, said: "Many logging companies paid us to transport logs using elephants. Sometimes we went to work as far away as Burma."
Elephant owners and mahouts in the village grouped together as an association. When an elephant died, each member would chip in 400 baht and the money was given to the owner of the dead elephant to buy a new one. But when the logging ban was enforced the villagers were made jobless and many had to sell their elephants to survive.
Mr Sanan said that after a foreign reporter visited Wiang Thong village eight years ago to cover the practice of elephant eating, untrue stories emerged that they were killing the elephants.
"We only eat meat from dead elephants," said Mr Sanan.
"It's impossible for us to kill elephants. They are very expensive. Even back then, they cost between 50,000 baht and 100,000 baht."
NOTHING WASTED: Chamlong Sanpapao, leader of a team skilled in cutting up an elephant carcass, shows a bottle containing fluid taken from the glands on the sides of the head of elephants. The fluid is believed to have magical properties.
Mr Sanan said villagers develop a close bond with their elephants from childhood and always feel grateful to the pachyderms for their usefulness. The death of an elephant is always mourned by villagers.
When it comes to the meat, a team of men skilled in cutting up an elephant carcass is called in.
Before cutting up the carcass, a rite is performed to apologise to the elephant for what they will do.
The reputation of the team preparing the carcass has spread to elephant owners in Surin, the northeastern province famous for capturing, taming and training wild elephants.
When elephants die there, elephant owners in Surin contact Wiang Thong villagers to come and buy the elephant carcass. Mr Sanan said some elephant owners in Surin give away carcasses for free and came to the village to witness for themselves the practice of eating elephant meat.
Chamlong Sanpapao, 46, who heads the team that cuts and prepares elephant meat, said in the past people believed that eating elephant meat could boost physical strength and promote longevity.
TOOTHY: Sanan Chindamanee, left, and Wilaiwan, his wife, with elephant teeth kept as mementos,
Mr Chamlong said villagers pay a lot of money to buy elephants. "When they die, their owners don't want to get rid of their carcass. They still can make money selling their carcass," Mr Chamlong said.
An elephant carcass can fetch between 10,000 and 30,000 baht, he said.
Mr Chamlong said practically every part of an elephant body is valuable, particularly its tusks.
Even its bones are made into decorative items or talismans.
Of the body parts, an elephant penis is considered a delicacy which requires a complicated cooking procedure, said Mr Chamlong.
In the past, if an elephant died in the forest, a "hunting" team would be sent to find the carcass and then the cutting would follow. But such teams no longer exist because most elephants die in cities, said Mr Sanan.
Phrae governor Somchai Hatayatanti said the practice of eating elephant meat in Wiang Thong village had attracted curiosity from outside.
FORM A QUEUE: An entrance and an access road leading to Wiang Thong village,
It is one of the province's rarities and could be promoted as a tourism attraction, he said.
Permanent secretary for natural resources and environment Saksit Treedet said the number of elephants in Thailand, both wild and domesticated, is declining rapidly.
The latest survey shows there are no more than 5,000 elephants in the country and it is predicted that if no serious effort is made to help save them, they could become extinct within 14 years, Mr Saksit said.
Sitthidej Mahasawangkul, director of the Lampang-based Elephant Hospital, has advised mahouts and elephant owners to take special care of elephants, particularly sick and old ones, during the cold season.
Cold weather can have an immediate effect on the health of elephants, Mr Sitthidej warned.
<:od>PS. As ever, I have to argue with the ascertion that the population of domestic elephants is declining rapidly as all other evidence (including Government figures) points to the opposite.