Once revered for their brawn and loyalty, a decline in traditional forestry practices has brought unemployment and destitution to Thailand’s elephants. Two innovative hotels are now hoping that tourism can help save the embattled giants.



Two years ago, the World Conservation Union declared the Asian elephant on the verge of extinction. In Thailand alone- a country where elephants have long being revered for their brawn and loyalty- elephant numbers have fallen from approximately 400,000 at the turn of the 20th century to 2,500 today, 0.625 per cent of their former number. Some factors contributing to the elephant’s precarious status are mechanisation, a ban on commercial logging in the early 1990s, a decline in natural habitat and an increase in poaching. Spurred on by these alarming figures, a few innovative individuals have decided that tourism could be the way not only to raise awareness of the animal’s current predicament, but also to create an alternative economy for the redundant giants.

Plai Tawan was less than two years old when he was sent to earn a living on the streets of Bangkok. Dutifully following his mahout, the dusky grey bull marched through the city’s rowdy red-light districts every evening, accepting bananas or sugar cane hawked by the mahout’s assistants or allowing bystanders to crawl under his legs for good luck for a fee. Home was either a vacant lot or the back alley of a cheap hotel, depending on where the authorities were, alongside overflowing garbage cans that provided the day’s food. Business boomed until the day the baby elephant was hit by a car. One of his hind legs was crippled and that was the end of his street career.

Plai Tawan’s story is not unusual, nor is it one of the most distressing. It is estimated that more than 350 elephants work the streets of Bangkok alone. A ban on commercial logging in Thailand (traditionally the elephant’s main source of income) and rapidly shrinking habitats mean that many elephant owners are unable to support their beasts, turning to the streets to beg instead. Some use elephants as young as six months old- because the cuter they are the more money they earn- and many animals are diseased and undernourished. Thailand’s most revered animal has all too often been reduced to the status of hapless and hopeless street beggar.

Joining a growing band of concerned citizens alarmed not only at decreasing elephant numbers but also at their falling grace, British conservationist John Roberts hopes he may have a solution for Thailand’s elephants. Together with the Anantara and Four Seasons resorts in the Kingdom’s Golden Triangle, the government-run Thai Elephant Conservation Centre and UK-based Elephant Family, Roberts has devised a programme where tourists can learn to become mahouts, using the profits to help take sick and distressed elephants and their human handlers off the streets.

What is not involved are leisurely rides in the comfort of cane baskets or relaxing trips along sun-dappled forest paths. Guests taking the three-day Mahout Training course become the elephants’ caretakers. Starting at the crack of dawn, guests spend most of the day feeding, bathing and exercising their adopted giants. They get dirty, tired and weary. ‘It’s been a lot of hard work,’ says Tomoko Sakai, a Japanese tourist on the last day of her course. ‘It’s also been amazing. I can’t tell you how much fun this has been.’ Sakai is drenched from head-to-toe- one last souvenir from her adopted pachyderm, who decided her new friend would like to join her for an early morning swim.

At the nearby Four Seasons Tented Camp, a day with the elephants is included in the cost of guest rooms (though not compulsory), encouraging everybody who goes there to spend time with the animals. Joining the mahouts on the elephant’s back, visitors are given a quick run-down on how to drive the animal, before the mahout jumps off and the rookies are left alone. It is daunting at first, but everybody comes back for more. In the afternoon guests can be heard trekking along a thin sliver of land that borders Burma. ‘Bei! [Go!]’ they shout at the elephants, most of whom would rather take it easy and graze their way from A to B.

The project presents a win-win situation; it gives tourists a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity while raising awareness of the elephant’s current fate, providing employment for the mahouts and raising money to take young elephants off the streets.

Plai Tawan was the first elephant purchased by Roberts’ rescue project. Though he was crippled and he would possibly never work again, his owners demanded an extortionate 180,000 baht ($5,200)- more than three times the going rate. ‘What these street gangs do is terrible,’ says Roberts. ‘Groups of young kids with no mahout experience buy baby elephants and use them to make as much money as possible. Our Thai staff bargained so hard for Plai Tawan and we knew that as soon as we handed over the cash the owner would simply buy another, which is what he did, most likely smuggled across the border of Burma or Laos.’

Connie Speight, founder and director of The Elephants Umbrella Fund, paid a gang more than $13,000 to take one desperately thin calf off the streets of Bangkok. ‘This is even though my Thai friends did the negotiating,’ she says. ‘If I had asked the price, it would have been at least three times this.’

The American national has been rescuing street elephants for the past three years. She is already up to number seven. ‘There are a few families that truly love their animals and take them to work on the streets a couple of times a year because they have no other way to earn money. But others use their animals as commodities. The animals are treated brutally and become desperately sick. It’s horrendous.’

Officially it is illegal to beg on the streets using elephants, and although the Thai government sporadically cracks down on the situation, expelling the elephants and owners from the city, the situation is not constantly monitored. ‘It’s outrageous to think that people allow it to happen,’ Speight says. ‘Nothing will change until the government gets heavily involved; until they start treating elephant abuse and issues with consistency.’

Khun Lord knows all about the Bangkok authorities. A mahout since the age of 13, he spent many years walking his elephants on the streets before the police caught him one last time and barred him from the city.

He grew up in the north-eastern province of Surin, where historically there was always work for mahouts- a profession followed by his father and grandfather. But as Khun Lord grew older, elephants, previously used for logging in the area, started to be replaced by machines and jobs became fewer and fewer. Despite spending five years in Japan working with elephants, Khun Lord could not find a job in Thailand. Eventually, he separated a baby from its mother and hit the streets.

‘Tourists give much more money for babies than older elephants,’ he says, adding that he could pocket around $120 on a good night, roughly what a labourer could expect to make in a month. Then he met Roberts, who convinced him to move, along with his elephants and extended family to the lush hills of Chiang Saen and help run the elephant project.

‘I could be earning a lot more on the streets,’ says Khun Lord, a gentle man creased with laughter lines. ‘But it is a really good life here. There is heaps of food for the elephants and everything is so much easier.’ Inspired by what Roberts, the Anantara and Four Seasons have achieved, Khun Lord now has a dream to establish a similar project in Surin.

Roberts’ project also helps to host Thailand’s annual King’s Cup polo match. Using elephants instead of horses, the match attracts celebrities and companies from around the world and helps to raise money for the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre. Many animal rights groups have slammed the game. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has claimed that a recent match in Jaipur, India, was played with elephants caught from the wild and goaded with ankus (a hook-like tool), but such claims are denied by the organisers who maintain their elephants have all been bred in captivity and are under the age of 20 and play for no longer than 20 minutes at a time.

It may be a case of not being able to see the herd for the elephants. Ideally, no elephant should have to work. But as their traditional roles have become obsolete and their native habitat reduced, practices such as tourism and polo provide an alternative income for support. It is estimated the Asian elephant’s habitat has shrunk by 70 per cent in the past 30 years. ‘Of course it would be lovely to let them all live in the wild,’ says Roberts. ‘But the truth is, there is no wild left. Where are you going to put them?’

Anantara Golden Triangle
+66 53784084; www.anantara.com

Four Seasons Tented Camp
+66 53910200; www.fourseasons.com/goldentriangle

+856 20 5418730; www.elefantasia.org

This article appeared in the May 2008 issue of CNN Traveller, global edition.