Oh stop. I really wasn’t gonna go there.
Okay one, but don’t ask for more:
#1. As a menswear mannequin in Pattaya.
A story about Thailand came over my news feed last week, which doesn’t happen often. America’s media doesn’t cover events in small SE Asian countries much. Not unless a high body count is involved. It’s not that we are not interested, don’t care, or are xenophobic, but rather we just got used to that reporting paradigm during the Vietnam War. It’s how we kept score.
But elephants are a different story. Elephants are an endangered species. People there are tons of. When there’s an elephant news story that involves a body count it tugs at everyone’s heart strings. Because elephants are cute. At least that’s what everyone says. I don’t think people who consider elephants cute have ever actually seen one up close and personal. They smell, have bad dental hygiene, and are covered in a sparse pelt of pubic hair. But then I can’t explain Ron Jeremy’s career either, so what do I know.
Elephants are not cute and cuddly like puppies are. Nor, like puppies, are elephants all about unconditional love. In fact, according to Time Magazine in partnership with CNN, world-wide it’s estimated that elephants kill over 500 people a year. Great white sharks only score 4. Elephants do not make good household pets. Elephants do however make good beasts of burden. But they move slowly. Which fits well with the Thai work ethic: so thumbs up, good match.
When there were more elephants in the world, they used them as mounts in war in India. Put a calvary riding horses up against one of elephants and you know who is gonna win. But not just any old elephants were chosen for battle. Indians used bull elephants for war, selecting those that were in musth, a state of violent, destructive frenzy occurring during the rutting season in male elephants accompanied by the exudation of an oily substance from glands between the eyes and mouth. (So there’s your word for the day: musth. Feel free to use it next time you are in Pattaya.) The only problem with using enraged and engorged bull elephants for the calvary was that the beasts tended to kill just as many Indians as they did whomever it was the Indians were fighting. But then that’s that body count thingy again. And so was this news story from the Associated Press that popped onto my computer screen:
BANGKOK (AP) — A new taste for eating elephant meat — everything from trunks to sex organs — has emerged in Thailand and could pose a new threat to the survival of the species.
Wildlife officials told The Associated Press that they were alerted to the practice after finding two elephants slaughtered last month in a national park in western Thailand.
“The poachers took away the elephants’ sex organs and trunks … for human consumption,” Damrong Phidet, director-general of Thailand’s wildlife agency, said in a telephone interview. Some meat was to be consumed without cooking, like “elephant sashimi,” he said.
Poachers typically just remove tusks, which are most commonly found on Asian male elephants and fetch thousands of dollars on the black market. A market for elephant meat, however, could lead to killing of the wider elephant population, Damrong said.
I’ve watched locals in Thailand eat some pretty disgusting things. And they are not in the least bit shy about telling you what that gross stuff they are chewing on is. Elephant for a snack, however, was a new idea for me. And even though the story came from the AP and not Fox News, I had my doubts. Sounded like some gullible reporter getting his leg pulled by a Thai with a sense of humor. Who undoubtedly made a few baht off of the ‘scoop.’
A day later, the Phuket Gazette responded to the article which got picked up world-wide and even made it into Time magazine. Part of the AP report centered the problem in Phuket, a popular beachside resort destination, where according to their source elephant meat was being ordered by restaurants. Phuket Governor Tri Augkaradacha said he had never heard of elephant being eaten on Phuket and that an investigation failed to substantiate the claim.
I was ready to call bullshit on the original AP article, but then since the same official has denied the existence of jet ski scams, the world of Mafia controlled fixed-price tuk tuks, and airport transpo vans that take you to day-trip concessionaires instead of your hotel, it seems there may in fact be some truth to the story.
The AP named a Phuket-based brother and sister as suspects in the elephant meat caper. They run a law consulting firm in Phuket and own a rubber plantation near a national park in the next province. Both were shocked to find they’d been identified as the masterminds behind the elephant meat scandal. Local authorities were as surprised even though they had been investigating the dead elephant problem – that does not exist – and had stopped the brother and searched his car for traces of elephant meat – which does not exist. The suspect, who hasn’t a clue as to how this rumor started, reported the police had found no evidence of nonexistent dead elephants in his Suzuki Vitari during a search of the vehicle on January 7th. One has to wonder how much it cost the alleged poacher to have the police not find anything in his car.
So lesson learned: do not believe everything you read in the newspaper. Or everything you are told by the authorities in Thailand.
As in the human world, it’s much better being an Asian elephant than an African elephant. In Africa, elephant roadkill means the entire village will be fed. I know. Shocking. Horrifying. A dead elephant being cut up for dinner incites rage in all of
you us. A village full of malnourished children with extended bellies, not so much. But then elephants are cute. Starving children don’t bring on the same warm fuzzies. If it helps, don’t think of it as elephants being killed for food, but rather the locals’ dedication to going green.
The idea of chowing down on some Dumbo gumbo however is repulsive to most Thais. The elephant is their nation’s symbol and Thais love elephants. So much so that the Bangkok Post reported last week that 2012 is stacking up to be a banner year for elephants in Thailand. Custom officials report large-scale tusk smuggling has reached a record high already this year, with at least 2,500 dead elephants used for ivory.
Like prostitution in Thailand, poaching elephants is banned, and trafficking or possessing poached animal parts also is illegal. But elephant tusks are sought in the illegal ivory trade and the quest for ivory remains the top reason poachers kill elephants in Thailand. And of course, you will never ever see ivory for sale everywhere you look in Thailand.
Soraida Salwala, the founder of Friends of the Asian Elephant foundation, said a full grown pair of tusks could be sold from 1 million to 2 million baht, while the estimated value of an elephant’s penis is more than 30,000 baht. In Pattaya, it’s under-age elephant penis that is the draw and according to rumors can be found in Sunee Plaza for as little as 10,000 baht. Regardless of age, size, or end-use, a dead elephant is worth more than a live elephant in Thailand.
Thailand has fewer than 3,000 wild elephants and about 4,000 domesticated elephants, according to the National Parks Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department. Domesticated elephants are considered to be commercial animals under the Beast of Burden Act 1939. The owner has the right to trade and use the animal at will. Owners of elephants register them and are issued a license, much like a drivers license since the Act was established in the time elephants were still a means of transportation in Thailand. Elephant rights activists claim this outdated form of ownership fails to protect the animals and allows elephants to be sold to those who will abuse and mistreat them.
The Thai Animal Guardians Association (AGA) reports sales of domesticated elephants cause these smart and sentimental animals considerable stress and difficulty in adjusting from one new owner to the next. Many trainers who walk elephant through the streets of Bangkok – which is also illegal so you certainly will never see elephants on every other corner in Patpong – are neither the original or real owners – just keepers. These keepers have no emotional ties to the elephants, tend to mistreat the animals and cannot control them during an emergency. Unfortunately the AGA also claims, in an attempt to further pull heart strings, that many elephants in Thailand are fed beer and amphetamines for the entertainment of tourists. Right. Over stating your point is never a good idea; we all know a Thai is not gonna waste his yaba supply on an elephant.
But it’s the interaction and bonding between the giant pachyderms and humans that is responsible for the world’s love affair with elephants. Elephants share many human traits, are known for their intelligence, societal customs and behavior, and long memories. Like humans, who are typically right or left handed, elephants are usually right or left tusked. And they display varied personality traits like humans too. Elephants, through testing, have been proven to possess self-awareness (one of Beachlover’s goals for 2012).
Before they became valuable for jewelry making, household decorations, food, and aphrodisiacs, tradition in Thailand was for a boy to be assigned to a baby elephant at birth to act as its trainer and companion for life; an obvious and close bond developed between the two. It’s not unusual for elephants to have this type of relationship with humans. The following story I found on the internet perfectly exemplifies the elephant/human dynamic:
In 1986, Dan Harrison was on holiday in Kenya after graduating from Northwestern University. On a hike through the bush, he came across a young bull elephant standing with one leg raised in the air. The elephant seemed distressed, so Dan approached it very carefully. He got down on one knee and inspected the elephant’s foot and found a large piece of wood deeply embedded in it. As carefully and as gently as he could, Dan worked the wood out with his hunting knife, after which the elephant gingerly put down its foot.
The elephant turned to face the man, and with a rather curious look on its face, stared at him for several tense moments. Dan stood frozen, thinking of nothing else but being trampled. Eventually the elephant trumpeted loudly, turned, and walked away. Dan never forgot that elephant or the events of that day.
Twenty years later, Dan was walking through the Chicago Zoo with his teenaged son. As they approached the elephant enclosure, one of the creatures turned and walked over to near where Dan and his son Dan Jr. were standing. The large bull elephant stared at Dan, lifted its front foot off the ground, and then put it down.
The elephant did that several times then trumpeted loudly, all the while staring at the man.
Remembering the encounter in 1986, Dan couldn’t help wondering if this was the same elephant. Dan summoned up his courage, climbed over the railing and made his way into the enclosure. He walked right up to the elephant and stared back in wonder. The elephant trumpeted again, wrapped its trunk around one of Dan’s legs and slammed him against the railing, killing him instantly.
It probably wasn’t the same elephant.
[No elephants were harmed in the making of this post. Oh, wait. That one in Zimbabwe didn’t fare too well. Never mind.]