Bangkok — Perched on the roof of his van, Roger Lohanan guides a powerful search light across tropical vegetation, hoping to spot an elephant. Eventually, a bare-chested boy emerges from the bush and says a large one is feeding nearby. Mr. Lohanan puts on a utility belt with a camera, two flashlights and binoculars. Then he calls the police.
Mr. Lohanan is hunting for elephants in downtown Bangkok; more precisely, he is trying to encourage city officials to enforce a law prohibiting elephants inside the city limits.
Like its humans, Thailand’s 3,000 domesticated elephants are suffering from expanding unemployment. Logging in the rain forests, an activity in which elephants have long been used, is now banned, and even illegal operations are running out of trees.
As a result, a growing number of elephants and their handlers, called mahouts, are coming to Thailand’s capital in search of money. Some Thais pay the equivalent of about 50 cents (U.S.) to crawl beneath an elephant, a feat they believe will improve their fortunes. Tourists pay a bit more for the chance to feed an elephant bananas or vegetables. On a good night in Bangkok, an elephant can bring its mahout more than $50.
But in doing so, the majestic animals have been transformed into urban beggars. And city life is bad.
Pollution gives them lung diseases. Noise makes them deaf. Hard to spot at night, they are regularly hit by cars. A three-tonne, 72-year-old elephant named Boonchu died this summer after its right front leg got caught in a sewer cover. And a crane had to be called out to rescue Thongkam, a female elephant attempting to bathe in a swampy urban jungle in a shantytown area.
“I feel sorry for the elephant,” says Jeeraporn Kanmgwannava-kul, a 30-year-old hospital clerk, after buying a melon for one of the beasts. “I’m hoping they make enough money that they can take him back north.”
But successful begging only attracts more elephants. Saengduen Chailert, the director of the Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand, says Bangkok business people have begun buying and renting out elephants, creating a more entrenched population of urban, money-seeking pachyderms.
Attempting to reverse the tide, Mr. Lohanan, the 39-year-old head of the Thai Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, sets out on weekly elephant hunts. It is frustrating work. For one thing, Bangkok police aren’t technically responsible for enforcing the five-year-old anti-elephant law. That job theoretically falls to district officers, who enforce such things as traffic laws and litter ordinances. But because the officers work only from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., the mahouts simply avoid them by hiding out during the day.
Setting out from his office a little after 5 p.m., Mr. Lohanan lists the problems that elephants face in Bangkok. Their feet, for example, are soft and spongy, so they are easily cut by glass and debris from hundreds of abandoned construction sites. While elephants have voracious appetites — ingesting food equal to one-tenth of their body weight every day — they have relatively delicate constitutions. Feeding them unwashed vegetables that have been treated with chemicals gives them severe digestive problems, says Alongkorn Mahannop, a veterinarian at Bangkok’s Dusit Zoo. He has treated more than 80 elephants for a variety of ailments during the past year.
Elephants aren’t new to Bangkok, but the numbers are increasing.
“They used to come in the dry season and go back to the countryside for the rest of the year,” Mr. Lohanan says, “but now there’s many more of them, and they [the handlers] started getting the idea that they could make more money by staying in Bangkok all the time.”
Dr. Alongkorn estimates the local elephant population has been at 150 to 200 in the past few months.
City authorities, Mr. Lohanan says, haven’t done much to turn them back.
When he calls the police from the urban jungle, they are slow to respond. By the time two officers pull up on a small motor scooter, local residents have told Mr. Lohanan that the nearby elephant is a female named Buathong. Mr. Lohanan knows the name. He had come across her a few weeks earlier, and, because of his prodding, municipal authorities had promised to send her by truck to northern Thailand. The neighbours say the trip was cut short a few kilometres outside Bangkok when the truck driver and three mahouts split the money that was supposed to pay for the journey. The handlers just walked Buathong back to central Bangkok.