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Bangkok Bars Elephants in Urban Jungle

Officials are enforcing laws that prohibit the domesticated pachyderms in the city, where their handlers hope to earn money.

February 16, 2003|Uamdao Noikorn | Associated Press Writer

BANGKOK, Thailand — For Bua Ngarm, it's a jungle out there.

Lumbering through the streets of Bangkok with her handler swaying on her back, Bua the elephant could get hit by a car, stumble into a ditch, get teased into a rage or fall victim to choking smog.

So far, the gentle 40-year-old beast -- standing three times the height of her handler, Chan Saengdee -- has escaped the ills that have befallen many of her cousins roaming the concrete jungle of the Thai capital.

But officials and conservationists say an alarming number of elephants have made Bangkok their home. They are falling prey to the dangers of the city, becoming a nuisance to others and dirtying the streets with their droppings.

Enough is enough, Bangkok authorities said in January, announcing that they will strictly enforce 11 bylaws that prohibit the presence of elephants in urban areas. In seven days of crackdowns, seven beasts were driven away by police aided by volunteer elephant spotters.

City authorities also increased the penalty that the mahouts, or handlers, will face -- four years in jail and a $2,300 fine, up from a $12 fine and a free ride home.

"It's just getting uncontrollable. We feel sorry for their lives, but elephants don't belong here," said Lt. Gen. Napat Sirhiran, assistant commissioner-general of special tasks at the Royal Thai Police.

Officials say some 100 domesticated elephants have become semi-permanent residents of Bangkok, brought from provinces and jungles by their handlers in search of food and work.

Elephants -- the unofficial national animal -- were once the mount of royalty, the vehicle of choice in wars and the pride of Thai jungles. They were extensively used for felling trees by the lumber industry until a 1989 logging ban put them and their handlers out of work.

Overnight, the mighty workhorses became white elephants for their owners.

"Many times, I think my life might be easier and happier if I didn't have to take care of such a big burden. But I can't let her go when she has been part of my family from the day I was born," Chan, 34, said of Bua.

After receiving marching orders from Bangkok police, Chan moved to a neighboring province before heading back to his native Surin province, 210 miles northeast of the capital.

But, he says, the future is bleak.

He does not know how he will feed Bua, the offspring of a now-deceased elephant that belonged to a fellow villager.

"It's just like a pet dog in your house. The boring part is that she kept growing bigger and bigger," Chan said.

In the past, elephants were just seasonal visitors to Bangkok, coming during the rainy periods and returning home in summers to avoid the heat.

But in recent years, with jobs back home becoming fewer, many elephants and mahouts have been staying year-round.

The lucky ones found jobs at resorts where elephants give rides to tourists.

Others like Chan sell amulets or items made of ivory, earning enough to last until the next tour.

Many earn money by selling fruit to sympathetic bystanders who feed the elephants with their purchase.

But life hasn't been easy.

According to city figures, at least a dozen elephants are killed or injured every year by vehicles, falls into sewage or ponds, and bites by rabid dogs.

Roger Lohanan, secretary-general of the Thai Animals Guardian Assn., says Asian elephants, unlike their African cousins, are very sensitive to the sun and easily get sunburned in the treeless city.

Lack of adequate, clean water also causes diarrhea and skin infection.

"Elephants are very gentle and sensitive animals. They're not born to be in any city, but in a quiet, clean place full of greenery," he said.

Three years ago, a 21-year-old elephant, Phlai Rungruang, went berserk after being teased by a man who offered sugar cane to the beast but then drew it back several times. An enraged Phlai ran amok downtown for three hours before being subdued by tranquilizer darts. There were no injuries.

About the same time, an elephant fell into a muddy canal at night and remained stuck for hours, while another went berserk with hunger.

Another case that made headlines was of a cow elephant, Phang Boonmee, that died after eating more than 100 pounds of uncooked rice stored in the back of the truck that was taking her to Bangkok.

Conservationists have applauded the elephant ban. They hope that it also will stop the flourishing business of capturing and renting calves to handlers for $465 a month for use in begging and selling.

"Thais are kind, and young animals easily melt their hearts. The younger the elephant is, the higher the income," said Sompast Meephan, owner of the privately owned Ayudhaya Elephant Shelter.

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