SURIN, Thailand (Reuters) - Sucking up sugarcane with their trunks and circling busy traffic roundabouts, the elephants that roam Thai towns at festival time seem as much at home in the city as in the forest.
Shows that feature elephants painting pictures, playing polo and whirling hoola hoops on their trunks have become an economic lifeline for more than a thousand domesticated elephants, who lost their incomes when Thailand banned logging in 1989.
But entertaining locals and tourists has become a life or death business for elephants and their keepers, explained Sam Fang, author of Thai Elephants: Tourism Ambassadors of Thailand.
“They had to cope with the ban on logging, and deforestation,” Fang said. “First jobless, second no food. Wham!”
Tourism filled the gaps, he said.
“The better elephants got themselves a job as taxis. The intelligent elephants got themselves jobs as show elephants. The smarter ones became artists,” he said jokingly.
Unlike larger African elephants, which have never been domesticated in large numbers, Asian elephants have worked closely with humans for millennia.
But this proximity has not helped protect Asia’s pachyderms, who are endangered throughout their 13 range states, and ten times less numerous than their African cousins.
“A lot of the attention has tended to go to Africa,” said Simon Hedges, co-chair of the World Conservation Union (IUCN)’s Asian Elephant Specialist Group.
“Asian elephants are somewhat the poor relation ... We really don’t know how many elephants there are in Asia. In some countries we don’t even know where the elephants are.”
Estimates put the total wild Asian elephant population at 30,000 to 50,000 and captives at 12,000 to 15,000, he said.
In Thailand, where elephants have been domesticated for more than 4,000 years, there are probably 1,000 domesticated or captive elephants, compared to 3,000 left in the wild.
Elephant conservationists such as Sangduen “Lek” Chailert worry that captive elephants, considered beasts of burden in Thailand, have little protection from abuse if their owners work them all day to bring in more tourist dollars.
“Elephants used to be transport for the king, they were very important in history. Today they’ve just become subservient,” said Chailert.
“They turned from a holy animal to work like slaves all day. And at night they’re chained,” she said. “They’ve made elephants into machines for making money.”
While tourism has become the only game in town for most of Asia’s captive elephants, the industry’s growth could also be a threat to dwindling wild populations, conservationists fear.
“There are suggestions that elephants are being illegally caught or even being smuggled into Thailand to replace the ones that are dying,” said Hedges, referring to elephants dying in camps in the north where they are used for tourist jungle treks.
Once wild animals are sucked out of their forest habitats, there is little chance for “tamed” elephants to go back. Reintroducing captive elephants to forests is neither easy to do, nor a conservation priority, Hedges said.
“The priority is that you work with the wild animals, and don’t direct too much attention or resources to reintroduction or returning captive elephants back to the wild,” he said.
“It’s potentially a dangerous distraction from the real problems facing the wild ones, habitat loss and poaching and conflict and crop raiding.”
Simple as it sounds, the first step towards improving the lot of Asia’s captive elephants is ascertaining where they are, said elephant expert Richard Lair.
Lair has proposed micro-chipping domestic elephants to prevent abuse through better monitoring, and reduce horse-trading among owners.
“The reason we don’t know about deaths, births, illegal trade is because the registration process is so inefficient. And the wild are not even counted,” said Lair, the Director of the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Chiang Mai.
“A compromise will have to be hammered out,” he said.
In the meantime, working elephants just have to hope the tourists keep coming, he said.
“The worst case scenario is that the global economy goes into a recession, tourist numbers plummet and, a large number have no gainful employment.”
Editing by Megan Goldin