‘Happy Faces’ for jumbos: Move elephants from Bangkok’s mean streets to natural habitats

Thailand elephants

Thailand elephants: photo: Bohdan Szcześniak

Scenes of hungry, unemployed elephants wandering the crowded streets of Bangkok begging for food and money from tourists and urbanites may soon be a memory after the Thai capital’s municipal government—the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, (the BMA or City Hall)—recently kicked off strict new measures to ban the elephants from the streets and enlist help from the Provincial Administrative Organisation in the northeastern province of Surin, home to large numbers of both pachyderms and their handlers, the mahouts, in an attempt to find a lasting and sustainable solution to the problem.

Following City Hall’s Elephant Smile Project, the Returning Elephant to its Homeland project was launched to help shelter wandering elephants in the capital. Over 7,000 rai of land (some 2,800 acres) at the Elephant Studies Centre in Surin’s Tha Tum district, is now home to wandering elephants after the centre received a government budget of 22 million baht (US$660,000).

Over 75 elephants were brought by their mahouts to the centre for training. And for participating in the project the mahout receives a 8,000 baht monthly training allowance or honorarium ($240).

Mahout Banjong Datong said he had taken his female elephant to forage in Bangkok for over 10 years. He boasted he earned as much as over 50,000 baht a month ($1,500), the amount of money which helped him pay out all his 300,000 baht in debts (about $9,000), within just one year.

Banjong credits official strictness in enforcing prohibitions against wandering elephants in the city, and due to his wish to live with his family, he decided to return to his hometown in Surin. Despite the training allowance that has been provided, Mahout Banjong said the compensation did not begin to make up for the loss of his previous 50,000 baht.

“For me, 8,000 baht a month is just too little. I need a higher salary so I can buy enough food for my elephant and also look after my family,” said the veteran mahout. Banjong said that it was also evident that if the salary proved insufficient, he then may be forced by circumstances to take his elephant back to the City of Angels.

To prevent the likelihood of underemployed mahouts taking their elephants back to the mean streets of the city, the BMA has asked for an additional 200 million-baht budget (some $6 million), yet to be approved, from the central government’s Strong Thailand project by way of the National Resources and Environment Ministry to help develop a sustainable solution to resolve the problem of wandering elephants.

“200 million baht for the whole elephant project is quite little compared to the budget for raising two pandas in Chiang Mai, which has received 30 million baht ($900,000) every year,” said Teerachon Manomaiphibul, Deputy Bangkok Governor. “(We think) the least we can do with the 200 million is to build 300 ‘home-stay houses for pachyderms’, which can support all the elephants living in Surin and its neighbouring province of Buri Ram.”

Despite the drawbacks of the prohibitions, City Hall is holding to its intention to keep the big beasts off the Bangkok streets. The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration insisted to continue its strict measures from warning to arrest procedures for those possessing roaming elephants. It said the number of the animals now continuing to wander the Bangkok byways at less than 10 from the previous 200. The BMA wants to move the stately beasts from the capital by July 1 next year. To help the authorities put some muscle behind the threat, City Hall if offering 2,000 baht each ($60) as a reward, or bounty, for snitches who report the whereabouts of mahouts and their elephants.

As a part of reducing the population of giant beasts in the capital, a charity concert of ‘Take My Friends, Elephants Back Home’, to be performed by world-renowned singer Dionne Warwick, will be held December 20 at the Thailand Cultural Centre to help raise funds for Bangkok’s Elephant Smile Project and to raise awareness among Thais about elephant conservation.

Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra said that elephant wanderers are still found on the outskirts of Bangkok. They are generally loaded and carried on small trucks which move fast and can make a quick getaway to avoid arrest and prosecution.

A lot of money is at stake. A typical elephant is valued at 400,000 baht ($1,200) as indicated in sales and purchase documents found during arrests. A larger stake is the heritage of the elephant itself, certainly more central to the historic well-being of the Thai people than pandas imported from abroad. (TNA)