Monday, September 03, 2012

Elephant Beggars Follow Up

Elephant and mahout coming to beg at Chiang Mai restaurant 2008
Four years ago, I posted about elephant beggars in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  Today I got this email:
"I typed a response to your post about elephants begging in Chiang Mai, but when I clicked the preview button the post disappeared. That is why I am emailing you now."
[I get complaints now and then about how hard it is to leave comments.  I'm sorry for the inconvenience, but enough spam messages get through with the Blogspot obstacles, that I'm not ready to turn them off.  I trust my readers to be persistent enough to stick with it until their comment gets through, or, as Tim did, just send me an email.]
"In late 2010, a mahout, using as a weapon his metal-tipped wooden mahout stick, severely beat a couple of Australian tourists, who'd attempted to lecture the mahouts on the ethical treatment of animals. The mahout, and several others who'd been with him at the time of the beating, were arrested. The mahout was charged with some minor offense. All were released the following morning and were back with their elephants on the street within twenty-four hours of the attack. The Australians required hospitalization. The fallout of this awful event was such that the local Thai authorities decided it was time to rid Chiang Mai of the mahouts and their elephants. To that end, the police and the mahouts had a little meeting, which resulted in the mahouts and their elephants being shipped back from whence they came, a province along the Cambodia border. The mahouts, having successfully argued that they must beg in order to feed their elephants, are now subsidized. Or so the story goes. I was living in Chiang Mai at the time, and still am, but was away from Thailand when all this transpired. I've read the seder guest's comment about the elephants being owned by wealthy Thais. That makes this story even more interesting. Living in Alaska is a life-long fantasy of mine. Someday I'll get there. Best wishes, Tim"

I emailed back to Tim to get permission to post his email and found out he's a musician living in Chiang Mai but working in other Asian countries.  He also sent a Bangkok Post article on the attack.

I did some check up on this, including contacting Josh Plotnik who'd we met in Chiang Mai when he was doing his doctoral dissertation studying elephant behavior at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang.  Josh is now doing post-doctoral studies at Cambridge University, though he's spending most of his time in Northern Thailand where he's set up an organization called Think Elephant International.  The website explains the reasons behind of Think Elephant:

Why We Think Elephants
The loss of natural habitat, poaching for ivory, and human-elephant conflict are serious threats to the sustainability of elephants in the wild. Put simply, we will be without elephants, and many other species in the wild, in less than 50 years. Although conservation and wildlife management are not new ideas, clearly new approaches are needed. Think Elephants International is a non-profit focused on practicing science in the field, and teaching it in classrooms. Through research on elephant (and other animal) intelligence, we hope to better inform conservation practice in the wild by helping to formulate action plans that along with focusing on the needs of local human populations, take advantage of what we know about the animal's needs as well. Our research focuses on how elephants "see" their natural world – through smell and sound – and how they navigate this world – through problem solving and cooperation. Equipped with a better understanding of how these animals live, we hope to better help protect them in the wild.
Think Elephants is something else as well – an organization focused on conservation through education. But we don't just teach kids about the conservation battle, we bring the battle to them by bringing the elephants into their classrooms.
Josh confirmed Tim's report:
"The begging elephants situation is extremely complex -- yes, most of the eles were removed from the streets of Bangkok, and went home to Surin. In Surin, the government does subsidize the elephants and thus the mahouts get to stay home for 7,500THB [$240] a month (approximately). Unfortunately, I hear the eles are slowly making their way back to the streets in outlying provinces."

He also sent me to John Roberts' blog for the Golden Asian Triangle Elephant Foundation
(GTEAF*).  Their website describes (in part) their work:
"Yet, despite the strong bond between Thai people and their nation’s most genteel species, there are still a worrying number of elephants forced to walk the city streets to make their mahout a miserly living by begging from tourists.
In an ideal world all elephants would live in the wild and there would be no need to discuss elephants' work.  But until that point is reached, the GTAEF also aims to create and promote ethical work for the elephants and mahouts that are capable, whilst providing care for those that are unable."
Roberts, who is the Director of Elephants at Anantara Golden Triangle’s on-site Elephant Camp, wrote in a blog post just over a year ago (again, in part):
. . .You see, I believe (& I do have some idea which elephants are out there and what their history is) that there exists a perfectly reasonable (and improving) alternative back in the home town of these mahouts, an alternative provided by the Government (& improved for as many as possible by The Surin Project).
Not only is a viable alternative provided it has been very strongly explained to the mahouts that the penalties for being on the streets will be enforced.  “Go back home”, the authorities say, “we may not be able to make you rich there but we’ll keep you & your elephant there in the bosom of your family and, what’s more, if you come back out it’s ‘no more mister nice guy’, powerful people have noticed you, we’ll have to make your life a misery”
To me, that the message has hit home and so many elephants are still in Ban Ta Klang (in previous times when this approach was tried the elephants would stay until their existence became untenable: the food ran out or the money ran dry) means that this time, this IS a viable alternative.
So, I believe that the mahouts out there on the streets now, at least the ones I know about, have few excuses left (...a tendency toward an itinerant lifestyle?  ...a nagging wife?) - it is my belief that they are there for financial gain.  Believe it or not, the natural graze out on the streets may, at times, be better than can be found back at home but I believe the decision to go back out (most came home then went out again) was a purely financial one and has very little justification in ‘traditional lifestyle’ or ‘elephant welfare’ terms and none at all in the ‘no alternative’ terms. . .
You can follow Roberts' blog, Elephant Tails , here.  The most recent post is about selling coffee beans that have been processed by having elephants eat them before they are roasted.  Come on now, it's not that strange.  After all earlier this year I did a post about acacia trees whose seeds had to go through a giraffe's digestive system before they could germinate. 

Clearly there is a lively 'elephant world' out there that I've only glimpsed into. 

This post is long and convoluted enough.  I'll try to do another one on elephants soon though.

*GTAEF, from what I can tell, is a project of Anantara, a luxury hotel chain, that caters to the wealthy (I checked on a room in their hotel by the elephant camp and it started at over $1000 per night.  We stayed a night once in nearby Chiang Rai, in what we thought was a pretty fancy hotel for $35 per night.  That was an internet discount, but they weren't losing money on that price.)  This could be a great example of what's known as social entrepreneurship - using the market to support important non-profit causes.  Or it could be using green issues as a marketing ploy.  I just don't know enough about the organization to evaluate. 

1 comment:

  1. There are a few sanctuarys in Northern Thailand that rescue and retire elephants. Tourists come to view the elephants, but in their own habitat and groups/families, with no tricks, no rides, no painting, etc. Visitors just observe the elephants doing what they do naturally, as much as captive elephants can. Most elephants were rescued from illegal logging, tourist trekking, or street begging. The Elephant Nature Park is near Chiang Mai, and BLES, Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary is near Sukothai. Both can be found on FB or websites by a search of their names.


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