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Editor’s Note: Over the past 18 months, journalist Anthony C. LoBaido has made five trips to the nation of Thailand, where he has carried out research on the abuse and mistreatment of Thailand’s elephant population.
“One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster,
I can feel the devil walking next to me …
I can feel an angel sliding up to me”
— Murray Head, “One Night in Bangkok”
BANGKOK, Thailand – “Jenny” meanders slowly along the crowded Thai tourist mecca of Khao San Road. Hundreds of Israelis, Swedes, Brits and Australians are packed together for the quaint ritual of urban elephant gazing. They watch the baby elephant amid bright lights, booming techno music and drunken revelry. Jenny’s head shakes from left to right, over and over again, as a sign of her high stress level.
Jenny’s mahout, (pronounced “ma-hoot”) or “elephant driver,” gracefully works the crowd, soliciting donations to feed the baby.
“Twenty baht (about 66 cents U.S.) for a banana!” is his repetitive mantra, which seems to match the swaying of Jenny’s head and trunk. Reaching her breaking point, Jenny actually begins to cry.
Oblivious to all of this, many tourists are eager to pony up their hard-earned money.
What they don’t know is that the bananas and bahts of the farang, or “foreigners,” are part of the bondage that torments Jenny.
“We have to get these elephants off the street … they’re suffering so much,” says Lek Chailert, the Mother Theresa of Thailand’s elephant community.
Chailert has been selected as “Time” Magazine’s “Hero of Asia,” and has been featured on CNN and in “National Geographic.”
“I have personally followed the Bangkok street elephants from their start at the Pharam Bridge (outside the city center) through their long walk along the streets,” Chailert said in an exclusive interview. “It starts at 3 p.m. and ends at around 3 a.m. after having gone 20 miles. The elephants are so tired and so thirsty. They need so much water and they simply don’t get it. On average, over one month’s time, 15 street elephants will suffer some type of injury.”
Chailert’s life story of rescuing Thailand’s elephants has taken her from the jungles of Burma through the Royal Palace and into the teeming, seedy streets of Bangkok. She’s been hunted by assassins, viciously smeared in the mainstream Thai media, hospitalized after being punched in the face, watched assaults on her staff and endured the sight of a young elephant she personally rescued killed by government “officials” via a cyanide injection.
She said, “The begging elephants on Thailand’s city streets will have their life expectancy cut on average by 50 percent.”
Lek Chailert, who has spent her life working to protect Thailand’s elephants
There are many reasons: The aforementioned high stress levels, their incompatibility with the streets of the city, a lack of socialization with their mothers. But mainly because they’ve been ripped from their natural habitat – the jungle.
Trapped in this alien environment, the street elephants find that their greatest natural strengths and abilities have become their most unrelenting enemies. Elephants have extremely sensitive senses of smell and hearing. In fact, their trunks are the most sensitive smelling organ on Earth, so delicate they can catch a single apple seed.
Additionally, the nerve endings in their feet are so powerful that elephants stomp on the ground to send and receive special shock wave “messages” miles away as a stealth communications medium.
Yet on the city streets these same nerve endings will be assaulted by the hard surface, the heat from the sunbaked pavement and unrelenting traffic vibrations. Their hearing is assaulted by crowds, traffic, music, machinery and more.
The overpowering stimuli of places like Khao San Road eventually will lead the elephants to go deaf and blind.
Roy David, an Australian who personally purchased an abused elephant, and remains one of Chailert’s staunchest partners and supporters, said, “I’ve been on the city streets around Thailand and heard booming music from various bars. The street elephants are forced to listen to this. I’ll tell you that it drives me mad – can you imagine what it does to the elephants?”
Awaiting the Exodus
Like the biblical Joseph who languished in Potiphar’s jail, Thailand’s street elephants long have been awaiting their collective Exodus. Not surprisingly, Chailert once again has found herself at the center of an effort to offer a life of health, peace and dignity to the more than 300 homeless street-begging elephants around Thailand.
It all began years ago when Chailert began visiting Surin Province in Eastern Thailand. Surin long has been revered in Thai culture and folklore for the region’s wild elephants and the vast elephant-based knowledge of the local indigenous tribe known as the “Gwi” or “Kui.”
(The Karen in northern Thailand, along with the Gwi/Kui, are the two “elite” elephant mahout-producing tribes.)
Thongchai Mungcharoenporn, the provincial governor of Surin in eastern Thailand, met Chailert earlier this year at the local “Surin Elephant Roundup” and almost immediately (and officially) allocated 2,000 acres of land on the Moon River. The land will be used as a haven for the homeless elephants.
“This has a chance to be truly historic,” Chailert said about the next logical progression of her elephant rescue career.
Saving all of Thailand’s troubled homeless, street elephants has been a priority for Chailert and elephant lovers all around the world for several decades.
In 1900 there were 100,000 elephants in Thailand. Today there are only 3,000 domestic elephants remaining with another 500-1,500 estimated in the wild. Those numbers are only kept at that level by the importation of captured wild elephants from Burma. Burmese elephants not engaging in clear-cut logging of teak wood are floated on barrels across the river to Thailand, where they then travel from the northern to southern end of Thailand to find work in circuses, trekking camps or perhaps even winding up on the streets. Huge bribes are involved every step of the way while the Thai nation turns a blind eye to yet another elephant travesty.
“If you build it they will come”
The question of the hour is how to set about building the brand new provincial park from scratch. Enter Jeff Smith, an environmental engineer from Ontario, Canada. Smith, a graduate of Waterloo University, is Chailert’s projects manager at the Elephant Nature Foundation.
During his four plus years working under Chailert’s direction, Smith has worn many hats, including designing accommodation at the flagship park in Chiang Mai which is “eco-friendly” and in harmony with nature .
An elephant left with a broken hip structure from a forced breeding program that involves chaining the animals
“I’ve studied the Thai language, chopped onions in the kitchen with the cooking staff, slept in huts with the mahouts and run our volunteer program,” Smith said.
Smith received a boost when his father, a pediatrician, journeyed to Thailand from Canada and ran a medical clinic in conjunction with the Elephant Nature Foundation’s “Jumbo Express.” The Jumbo Express is the part of the ENP brand which attempts to win the hearts and minds of the local hill tribes, assist them with animal and human medical problems, as well as teach them about elephant issues.
Asked why he has decided to devote his life to this, Smith said; “The reason I do this is that I know my work will contribute to something I believe in – helping Thailand’s elephants. The street elephants are in effect shell-shocked. As you know, they go deaf and blind.”
Added Smith, “Of course the whole issue of street elephants is illegal to begin with. But in Thailand you can get around many such laws through bribes. Until alternative structures are set up where the homeless street elephants and their mahouts can go, this situation won’t end. There’s simply no alternative. Logging was made illegal. Trekking camps are a possibility but there the baby elephants are taken away from their mothers very early in their lives and this is traumatizing for them. We need to promote natural elephant tourism as a solution.”
And now it appears that a potential solution has arrived.
Concerning the benevolent action of Mungcharoenporn setting aside the 2,000 acres for the new park, Smith said, “I call him ‘Nai Yok,’ which could be translated as ‘the uplifted one, carried above the shoulders.’ He actually came to us. Somehow we got on his radar when we went to Surin Elephant Roundup to hand out care packages to the mahouts. Lek has this effect on people. And Lek is a genius of innovation, though she is not a micromanager. She leaves that part to others.”
Smith detailed his far-reaching plan for the Surin Park.
“We’ll visit the local temples and schools during what I call Phase I of the Surin Project. We’ll get to know the local mahouts who run a circus there. We’ll ask them to unchain the local elephants that are housed in Surin, allow them to bathe in the river and engage in socialization. This is vital for the elephants – it’s a slow, incremental process.
“Our first team on the ground in Surin are not tourists but rather real people with various talents who can add value to the park, the local community, the elephants already there and the homeless street elephants which will eventually be resettled.”
While attempting to set up a forward operating base far from Chailert’s headquarters in Chiang Mai, Smith has designed a rigorous routine for the variously weekly groups of volunteers involved with the Surin Project.
“A routine is important. We’ll be planting shade trees, bananas trees and elephant grass. After all, elephants eat between 200 and 500 kilograms of food per day! We might need to survey the land with a survey crew, though I have been given aerial maps. Then there’s the need for an academic Biodiversity Study. Eventually we’ll train the locals to run the volunteer program as some of them already speak English.
“Obviously 2,000 acres is so big (roughly the size of Chiang Mai) you could ideally design a series of safari-style huts which tourists, travelers and volunteers could use as habitation and elephant observation. Also, crops could be planted around the park in such a way so that the elephants’ migration patterns would fit into the growing seasons and the elephants eating habits.”
As for the issue of safety for the resettled elephants in the new Surin Park, there are several ancillary benefits. First it’s a relatively remote location. The park is a six-hour drive from Bangkok. Next, as the park is situated towards the Cambodian border, there’s no border crossing since the area due east is heavily mined. On top of that, on the Cambodian side of the border sits the remnant of Pol Pot’s infamous Khmer Rouge “Year Zero” army. As such, poaching and other harassment of the elephants would seem difficult, if not impossible.
Funding for the project will come from tourism, the volunteer project, grants and donations. Nancy Abraham of the Alexander Abraham Foundation has been a generous contributor to the Surin Project.
Additionally, Smith has requested the drafting of a specialized Internet-based “Elephant 101” course which Chailert, (who has an honorary Ph.D. in Veterinary Science) will teach to university students and other elephant enthusiasts all around the world. The income stream generated from such an endeavor could be used to help resettle Thailand’s homeless street elephants and their mahouts.
Says Chailert, “Thailand’s elephants face many challenges. For example, some of the females are tied up and repeatedly raped. This is done in order to force them to breed.”
She said one of the elephants at the Elephant Nature Park had her hip broken by a bull elephant in this manner. Sometimes their ivory is cut off and sold and their trunks mutilated to get “medicines.”
“I’ve actually seen an elephant burned alive. I have photos of all of these horrible things and I am currently working on a photo book I’d like to call, ‘Weeping Giants: Elephants on the Edge.’ People will be shocked by what they see. But they must know how elephants are being abused and murdered in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma and elsewhere. They must know so that we can put a stop to it.”
To Donate to the Elephant Nature Foundation: Account Name: Elephant Nature Park Account No501-3-08706-7 Siam Commercial bank Thapae Branch Chiang Mai Swift Code: SICO-TH-BK