Thai government to buy surplus elephants for forest patrol

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2003:

BANGKOK–Two hundred out-of-work domesticated elephants are
to be purchased by the Thai government and be re-employed patrolling
37 national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, natural resources and
environment minister Prabhat Panyachartak announced on February 12.
Prabat Panyachartak expected to obtain cabinet approval for
the purchases as a Valentine for Queen Sirikit, who apparently
suggested using the elephants for patrol work after the national
police reported promising early results in training 50 street dogs
for investigative duties, as King Bhumibol Aduladej recommended in
his November 2002 birthday speech.

The King, 75, and Queen, 72, have no formal political
authority, but are viewed as the moral guardians of Thailand.
Always fond of animals, both have become outspoken about animal
welfare since adopting a street dog in 1998.
“Elephants would be well-suited to the job. Using elephants
is better than using four-wheel-drive vehicles, in terms of
pollution reduction and energy savings,” World wildlife Fund
Thailand secretary general Surapon Duangkhae told Ranjana Wangvipula
and Kultida Samabuddhi of the Bangkok Post.
Surapon Dunagkhae earlier was outspokenly critical of a plan
to release the elephants into the Kanchanaburi forest. Of 70 former
working elephants previously released into the wild, just 40
survived, Surapon Dunagkhae said. Some could not find enough food
and turned to raiding plantations, some tried to cross fortified
borders and stepped on landmines, and some were hit by vehicles.
The elephants lost their former jobs when Thailand curtailed
logging to save the native rainforest a decade ago. While some of
the logging companies replanted trees after clear-cutting, they
reportedly planted mostly eucalyptus, a fast-growing species which
provides wood pulp for papermaking, but does not provide adequate
food for elephants or most other Thai native wildlife.
The National Elephant Institute counted 3,500 working
elephants in 1992, of whom 990 were employed in tourism and the rest
mostly in logging. By May 2002 only 2,343 elephants still had jobs
anywhere. As many as 500 elephants were roaming the nation with
their mahouts, doing odd jobs and begging for food, with about 40
elephants illegally living in Bangkok.
Unofficial estimates put the Bangkok elephant population closer to 150.
Although the elephant surplus dictates that very few
elephants are added to the working stock these days, PETA in
mid-2002 released a video that it claims depicts mahouts violently
“breaking” young elephants to work, and started an aggressive
international campaign against Thai elephant use. PETA demanded that
Thailand should seize all working elephants and return them to the
forest, against the advice of Friends of the Asian Elephant, whose
spokespersons said that the PETA video did not show typical Thai
elephant training.
A Thai government investigation of the video concluded that
it was “doctored.”
Bangkok residents meanwhile called for a crackdown on mahouts
who bring their elephants into the city. Elephants blocking traffic,
sitting on cars, and going on rampages have become common in recent
One of the most menacing episodes yet came on January 3 when
a hungry 30-year-old bull elephant named Ole came into musth and
picked a fight with a younger elephant named Pumpui. Pumpui’s
mahout, Thongsai Homhuan, 45, fled, along with dozens of
bystanders, as Ole smashed trees and billboards for nearly four
hours. His mahout, found later in a drunken stupor, had not fed
him in two days. Ole destroyed a taxi, whose occupants escaped,
before veterinarian Alongkor Mahannop calmed him with tranquilizer
darts, fed him, and led him away.
Pumpui was badly injured, but Alongkorn Mahannop said that,
“A elephant in rut could go on a rampage and cause more damage and
trouble than this.”
Bangkok police for the first time began actively enforcing
the law against bringing elephants into the city, arresting seven
mahouts and confiscating their elephants within the next two weeks.
At least five of the elephants were later returned to the mahouts
after Sirinthep Ruampattana of the Assembly of Elephant Handlers
assembled an army of 130 elephants and 500 mahouts to invade Bangkok
in protest. They marched as far as Surin, en route to Bangkok,
before halting to consider the government offer to buy their
Sirinthep Ruampattana reportedly wanted the government to
subsidize a cooperative to keep all of the elephants and mahouts fed
and working.

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