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Thai Elephants
OCTOBER 2005
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Thai Elephants  @ National Geographic Magazine
By Douglas H. Chadwick
Photographs by William Albert Allard
Thailand's domestic giants, harshly treated by some of their handlers, face a perilous future in a land of shrinking forests and spreading cities.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

In the city of Khon Kaen, rising from the plains of the northeastern Thai region of Isaan, I visit a 40-year-old street elephant called Bom and her three-year-old offspring, a big, pushy boy named Minimax. They've been rented out by their owner to two mahouts and three assistants. Although mother and son look to be in fair condition, I notice raw scars on Minimax's forehead and holes in his ears—wounds caused by an ankus, the baton with a hooked metal tip used to enforce commands.
 
Working the streets is a simple racket: The elephants march along under their mahouts' guidance, extending trunks toward passersby, occasionally adding a curtsy or head waggle while assistants fan out, hawking overpriced bananas or sugarcane to feed the giants. Onlookers pay out of kindness and amusement, and also because of ancient traditions that link elephants to fertile rains and prosperity. Thais still walk under an elephant's belly three times for luck, or to ensure an easy birth.
 
The midday temperature is sweltering, too hot for the crew to begin working the streets yet, so we linger where the men have strung a tarp over some weeds in a vacant lot. Plastic bags holding rice, chilies, and fruit dangle from branches. The tarp, a fire pit, and a small shrine fashioned from scraps of corrugated metal will be their home for the next month. Bom and Minimax are tethered with a long chain to keep them from wandering while the men doze; they've been up all night watching the elephants forage, making sure they didn't tear into the tasty trees of nearby yards. A ringing sound awakens the sleepers. "Yes, OK," I hear a groggy mahout say, answering his cell phone. "I can take Bom to do a wedding if you get the truck here the night before."
 
After the men bathe the elephants, we set out to shake some coins loose from the neighborhood. "Zu gluay liang chaang, bor krub!Please buy bananas for the elephant!" the mahouts cry. "Just one bunch for the little one!" The men duck into shops and restaurants, waving bananas through wrought iron gates at people in courtyards. Minimax pokes his trunk in as well, bobbing his head up and down and squeaking encouragement at potential buyers as he's been taught to do. But few people are about, and after two hours and five miles (eight kilometers), the men have sold just three bunches of bananas for a total of 60 baht—less than $1.50.
 
The money was better in Bangkok, where Bom and Minimax could make up to a hundred dollars a night. But the government has begun cracking down on street elephants in cities, and this crew was run out of the capital. The behemoths slow down already jammed traffic and compete with streetside stores for people's pocket money. Forced to walk long distances to reach city centers each day, the elephants get sick from breathing exhaust fumes, drinking polluted water, and having to snatch meals from trash-filled ditches. They also break legs clambering over concrete abutments and get smacked by automobiles. Though enforcement of the ban was casual at first, pressure from the public and Thai organizations demanding more humane treatment of elephants forced city after city to follow through on the rules.
 
Still, the elephants have to earn their keep somewhere. Many have simply been diverted to suburban areas, where they bide their time before filtering back into the cities. Bom and Minimax are working in Khon Kaen only because local police look the other way as long as they keep to the fringes of town.
 
As dusk descends, the two elephants plod ahead on the paved road, oblivious to speeding motorbikes, barking dogs, and tag-a-long knots of shrieking kids. One resident gives money to have Bom suck up a trunkful of water and spray it through his doorway as a blessing upon the house. One of the mahouts ties a flashing red light to her long tail and reflective tape to Mini-max's so the animals are visible to cars passing in the darkness. Vendors begin opening their streetside stalls. Several give Minimax melons and squash from their own wares. Parents buy bananas and pass them to toddlers to hold while colossal Bom, watched by some of the widest eyes ever to appear on a child's face, plucks the treats carefully from their hands.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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