Elephants kicking soccer balls, painting flowers with their trunks, or twirling a hula-hoop are a common sight in Thailand, where the sacred warrior beasts perform in tourist shows or peddle fruits on the streets of Bangkok.
BANGKOK Elephants kicking soccer balls, painting flowers with their trunks, or twirling a hula-hoop are a common sight in Thailand, where the sacred warrior beasts perform in tourist shows or peddle fruits on the streets of Bangkok.
But rising demand for elephants, especially easily trained calves favored by some 150 elephant camps across Thailand, is threatening dwindling wild populations in the jungles of Indochina.
"Thais love elephants, and they are afraid they will become extinct," a senior researcher in the National Parks Department said of the habit of giving money to street elephants. "They help the elephants, but their help is hurting these elephants. More and more of them are being exploited."
Foreign animal rights groups have criticized Thailand's handling of elephants as Bangkok hosts a U.N. wildlife conference where the plight of the huge beasts is a hot issue.
There are around 6,000 elephants in Thailand, half of them domesticated, compared to 1 million just a century ago, according to the National Parks Department.
Asian elephants, mainly found in South and Southeast Asia, were used for centuries for everything from logging to carrying troops into war.
But as humans encroached on their habitat, elephants were caught, domesticated, and used for entertainment. Elephant camp owners say the beasts can no longer live in the wild.
"Thai elephants still have to fight like in the past, but now they are fighting for their survival," said Sompast Meepan, owner of a camp in the ancient capital of Ayutthaya.
Sompast, whose 129 elephants offer tourist rides through the ruins when they are not shooting basketballs or kicking footballs at packed shows, insists he is doing nothing wrong.
"If they were wild elephants living in the jungle, who would take care of them? We might only find their carcasses," he said.
Demand Drives Slaughter
But researchers in the National Parks Department say the demand from elephant camps is driving a slaughter in the wild. Poachers seeking elephant calves along the Thai-Myanmar border have to kill mothers to capture babies.
The poachers, many of them ethnic Karens living along the border, are lured by jumbo price tags: 350,000 baht (US$8,500) for a calf. A handsome teenager, a symbol of power and good luck in Thai culture, can fetch up to 1 million baht ($24,000).
But ugly elephants are also in high demand by mahouts in Bangkok and other cities. They believe people will give more money to animals that look distressed.
"The mahouts don't want good-looking elephants. Ailing or ageing elephants are wanted because their looks bring more money," one government researcher said, who declined to be named.
Street elephants can earn their owners up to 5,000 baht a day, selling fruit and vegetable to sympathetic passersby.
"The elephants work around the clock with little food or rest and eventually die," the researcher said.
Just weeks ahead of the U.N. wildlife conference, officials started rounding up street elephants in Bangkok and put them in a nearby national park.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told reporters after opening the conference the government would buy the jumbos from their owners and put them in "appropriate places" like zoos or national parks.
But animal welfare groups said solitary confinement or keeping the highly social animals in small groups that were not their families was "worse than death."
"When you want to punish a human being, other than capital punishment, solitary confinement is considered the worst sort of punishment," said Vivek Menon of the Wildlife Trust of India. "I think a zoo in which you keep these animals either solitarily or in forced groups is the worst possible outcome."