By: Piyaporn Wongruang
Published: 15/03/2009 at 12:00 AM
After receiving many complaints about elephants and their mahouts in the Rama IX area earlier this month, Prayote Promsuwan, a senior official for the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration's (BMA) law enforcement and inspection division, sometimes known as the thetsakit, mobilised his subordinates and Livestock Department officials to arrest the mahouts. Instead of running away like normal criminal suspects, the mahouts, who were taking a rest at an empty plot of land, just craned their necks and watched as the officials approached them. The two sides greeted awkwardly, with wry grins all around, until Mr Prayote broke the silence by saying: "Let's get together and talk."
Having dealt with mahouts in Bangkok for many years, Mr Prayote said he cannot remember how many times his men have arrested a particular mahout, only to see him on the street with his elephant a short time later after having paid a relatively small fine. It's an endless cycle, he said. Many mahouts have been arrested so often they become acquaintances of the officials.
Elephants roaming the streets have been a Bangkok fixture for decades, and a big part of the problem is that the city is simply not equipped to care for the elephants if their mahouts are jailed.
Mr Prayote said the BMA first addressed the issue in 1999 with a proposed solution to build a new park on the outskirts of the city to take care of the elephants. This proposal, Mr Prayote said, just disappeared over time, leaving officials at concerned agencies to try to find ways to cope with the problem on their own.
Four years later, the BMA issued an edict banning mahouts from bringing their elephants to the city. Under the ban, the BMA can fine the mahouts a minimum of 500 baht per arrest.
In 2006, a more comprehensive effort to deal with the problem was mobilised, led by the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry. At least eight state agencies, including the Livestock Development, as well as agencies under the Interior Ministry, were invited to take part in tackling the problem. It was agreed to set up a cooperative operational unit with personnel from the eight agencies. It was also agreed to amend the relevant laws concerning elephants - at least nine - to clarify the unit's authority to deal with the problem.
Mr Prayote said that after only a few weeks there were no more elephants in Bangkok as the mahouts had fled the city with them in fear. The cooperative unit was inexplicably disbanded.
It was not too long before mahouts and their elephants were back in the city. The amendments of relevant laws to offer holistic solutions never took place, and thetsakit officials like Mr Prayote were left with limited authority to deal with the re-emerging problem.
Officials have asked Livestock Department officials to help in the arrests, because they have more power to directly arrest mahouts if they move elephants around without permission from the department, and to confine the elephants if they are diseased. The 1956 Animal Epidemic Act sets fines of up to 10,000 baht and/or a jail term of up to six months.
In reality, officials cannot seize elephants if they cannot establish evidence that the animals carry diseases, or if they have animal identity certificates issued by the Interior Ministry.
"We track them, we arrest them [the mahouts] and then we have to release them - and it's just like that. It's like we paddle round and round in a pond," said Mr Prayote, who added that over the past few years he has seen an increase in the number of elephants roaming the city. According to the latest records, his team has arrested over 50 mahouts since January, or about one a day.
THE BANGKOK ALTERNATIVE
Officials say the root of the problem in Bangkok lies around 500km away, in Ta Klang village, Tambon Krapho in Surin province, where more than 90% of the elephants now found in the city come from. The villagers formerly used elephants for logging and, to a lesser extent, for ploughing rice fields. However, some 20 years ago the government declared a ban on logging. Meanwhile, the elephants' feeding ground, which was the young forest behind the village, had been turned into a big eucalyptus plantation, resulting in a scarcity of food.
The alternative for mahouts is coming to Bangkok and selling sugar cane to tourists to feed the elephants, or selling other small items to tourists using the elephants as a draw card. On some days the mahouts earn up to 2,000 baht, so it's not surprising that more and more mahout/elephant teams are arriving from Surin and neighbouring provinces.
Pui, a 28-year-old mahout from Ta Klang, claimed that the present generation is shouldering a heavy burden in raising elephants their ancestors brought home, and added that there are hardly any jobs to be found in the village. His family has one elephant left, so he decided to join his neighbours and take the elephant to the city.
"Elephants eat a lot, but there is less forest left to feed them. Once the rice harvest is finished, it's the time to come to Bangkok," said Pui.
According to Danchai Namai, a vet inspector for the Livestock Development Department who has been coordinating with Mr Prayote's team, the business has become lucrative to the point that there is rental and trade in domestic elephants among mahouts.
Mr Danchai added that elephants now being brought to Bangkok tend to be young.
He said that during the raid in the Rama IX area earlier this month, officials found one elephant that was from a Karen hill tribe rather than Surin, and noted there are reports that wild elephants are illegally captured in the wild and registered under forged identity certificates.
The Bangkok City Law Enforcement Office recently sent a letter to the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry asking it to reactivate its policy of cooperation among concerned agencies.
A source at the Interior Ministry conceded that at present there is a lack of integrated regulation, and each concerned agency has limited authority to deal with domestic elephants. There has been an attempt to formulate a new law to regulate elephants in the country, both wild and domesticated ones, during the past few years, but nothing has come of it.
His department conducted a nationwide survey on domesticated elephants, and found there were about 2,400 animals being raised in various locations. He said his department is enhancing the elephant registration process by putting the data online so that concerned authorities can check on their status and background.
This is partly to prevent forged registration of newly captured wild elephants, which could aggravate the problem of elephants in the city. Under the 1992 Wildlife Preservation and Protection Act, wild elephants cannot be registered.
Referring to the never-ending arrests, Mr Prayote said it was no good "tackling the problem at its end" as they have been doing.
"We cannot tackle the problem alone, but we cannot just sit and watch it happen either,"said Mr Prayote.
"The work has become such a dark joke for us. Various agencies trying to help come and go, and holistic solutions are proposed, but things stay the same. The fact is, elephants are our national pride, and we are now leaving them in desperate straits."