RAMKAMHAENG, THAILAND — It could be the world's biggest homelessness problem.
In this Bangkok suburb, elephants and their handlers walk the pavement, begging for bananas. The animals' skin is pocked; their feet are cut and worn. Lacking jobs and pushed out of their forest habitats, elephants have migrated to crowded urban areas, where many are undignified streetwalkers.
Now, conservationists are trying to save the pachyderms by building museums and launching art galleries in their honor - even forming elephant "rock bands" to draw tourists.
These animals have a long and noble history in Thailand. They once guarded the nation's leaders, and their image decorated the nation's flag. Thai kings used to keep a stable of revered white elephants.
But as the Thai economy has grown, natural habitats in northeastern Thailand have been destroyed, and mechanized agriculture has replaced traditional farming, which once relied on pachyderms and their trainers to haul logs, rice, and equipment. In 1965, the Livestock Department estimated that Thailand had more than 11,000 elephants, but today veterinarians believe there are fewer than 5,000 of the animals, domesticated and wild, in the country.
After logging was banned a decade ago, struggling mahouts (keepers) started to bring their elephants, which consume 400 to 500 pounds of food per day, to the metropolises. "In the cities, the trainers lead their elephants around the streets, begging people to pay a bit of money to feed the animals. The elephants and their handlers sleep under abandoned bridges," says veterinarian Alongkorn Mahannop, an elephant specialist. "This is an extremely unhealthy situation."
The tuskers' presence also has agitated city residents, who have grown increasingly weary of the jumbos in their midst. In Bangkok, whose latest ban on the animals was put in place this past March, several elephants have collided with automobiles. In October, a truck hit an elephant outside Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, killing the driver and a passenger.
"Our consumer society has deprived this big-eating mammal of its food and habitat" and forced the current standoff between man and elephant, Bangkok-based newspaper The Nation said in an editorial two months ago.
Yet given the elephants' plight, many animal rights' activists now say only a certain kind of consumerism can save Thailand's jumbos. "We have to turn to tourism, or all the elephants will keep coming back to Bangkok and will eventually face extinction," says Soraida Salwala, secretary-general of Friends of the Asian Elephant.
The tourism ministry proposes spending 1.05 billion baht ($24 million) to set up a series of elephant centers. In Lampang, outside Chiang Mai, a center has already opened in which elephants use their trunks to paint on canvases for tourists, and play drums, mouth organs, and xylophones in a 10-piece pachyderm band. The elephant combo has produced a demo tape and plans to release a full-length CD in Thailand and the United States in January. The center also offers humans three-month-long courses about pachyderm behavior, diet, and habits.
With a handful of existing elephant tourism sites as the example, some animal-rights activists have charged that having elephants do tricks for tourists is demeaning to the beasts. But proponents of tusker tourism counter that drawing visitors educates people about the animals.
"These elephant centers may not be the ideal situation, but at least the animals there are treated better than elephants that go to Bangkok or the ones used for logging," says Ms. Soraida.
Proponents also argue that tourism raises money that could be used to keep the elephant population vital, return some elephants to the wild, and rescue elephants from poachers.
Some of the funds from the elephant CD will go toward a milk bank for abandoned baby pachyderms. A percentage of the fees at the Baan Taklang center in the northeast town of Surin will be used to buy land where elephants can run free.
"Not all elephants can ever go back to the wild, but a few can return to the woods or live on elephant sanctuaries," says Niphakorn Singhapud, project manager of the center in Lampang. "And none of us want to see elephants sold to poachers."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society