On a visit to the logging site, Sangduen saw the elephant being beaten for bumping into trees. When she was told Jokia's history, she knew she wouldn't rest until she could raise the money needed to buy her. The daughter of a traditional healer, Sangduen Chailert runs a travel agency in the city of Chiang Mai, but her passion is caring for ani-mals in distress. A sort of one-woman humane society, she has accumulated more than 30 injured or abandoned dogs at her home and feeds another 200 strays. Jokia is one of 17 adult elephants Sangduen has rescued over the years, now passing their days on a 955-acre forest reserve 35 miles north of Chiang Mai, land that she owns or leases from the government. "I can't seem to stop myself," she says as we walk among towering gray bodies in the lush landscape of the Elephant Nature Park. She calls the place Elephant Haven, and it has put her at the forefront of a growing movement for more humane treatment of the animals.
Although shrinking wildlands, poaching, and conflicts with farmers have hit elephants everywhere hard, those in Asia are in far greater peril than even Africa's threatened giants. Once abundant from China to Iraq, Asian elephants now total no more than 50,000, including 15,000 in captivity. Thailand alone is believed to have had an estimated 100,000 elephants a century ago—half of them tamed to plow ﬁelds, transport goods, and muscle teak and other valuable hardwoods out of the jungles. Today about 3,000 tame elephants and a roughly equal number of wild ones remain. Images of elephants are part of the national decor, adorning everything from billboards and beer bottles to gilded palaces. Referring to 16th-century battles using elephant cavalry against arch rival Myanmar (Burma), Thais say their country won its freedom on these animals' backs.
Yet such reverence is at odds with the current condition of Thailand's working elephants. Logging and agriculture have robbed wild elephants of as much as three-quarters of the country's forest and put domestic elephants on the unemployment line, since most worked in the timber industry. And tame elephants, unlike their wild counterparts, are not covered under Thailand's Conservation Act of 1992; instead, they're classiﬁed as a type of livestock, like oxen or water buffalo. That means owners stuck with animals that can no longer produce income but still need as much as 500 pounds of forage and 60 gallons of water daily are free to sell them to be slaughtered for their meat or, in the case of bulls, for their ivory tusks.
The bond between a mahout and his elephant is among the strongest, most complex unions ever forged between Homo sapiens and a fellow mammal—the only one that can last a human lifetime because elephants also live to be 70 or older. But as the blind elephant Jokia shows, the bond is badly in need of repair. Many Thai mahouts are not the elephants' owners but simply men who hire on with tourist camps or rent the animals to panhandle on the streets, drawn by what looks like easy money. Panhandling has become so lucrative in tourist centers like Bangkok and Pattaya that the entrepreneurs who rent out the animals are sometimes referred to as "elephant lords." These keepers have no emotional ties to the elephants and little experience in how to care for or control them. The consequences can be tragic for both parties. By one estimate, perhaps a hundred mahouts are killed by elephants in Thailand every year.