In Thailand, elephants have been used by humans to perform a wide variety of tasks in many industries and endeavours, ranging from transport to warfare, and logging to tourism, for centuries. Many of these roles have proved destructive to both the Thai elephant population and the individual elephants engaged in them. In recent times, one of the most problematic and widespread destructive practices involving Thai elephants is their use in street begging.
Street begging typically involves bringing elephants into a highly populated area, such as a city, in order to elicit financial contributions from locals and tourists. The human accompanying the elephant usually accomplishes their goal of monetary gain either through direct requests for money from bystanders, offering people on the street fruit or other elephant food to be fed to the elephant at inflated prices, or by forcing the elephant to perform tricks in exchange for tips. Since the widespread unemployment of elephants following the nationwide logging ban in 1989, street begging has proved to be a consistently dangerous and harmful practice to the elephants involved in provinces like Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Surin, Phuket, and Pattaya. It’s potential for lucrative earnings has, however, ensured that generations of young elephants are forced into the trade in concrete jungles.
In the initial months and years after Thailand’s logging ban, many of those who brought their elephants into the city to beg for money or elephant food did so out of desperate poverty, and these people were often trained Mahouts in custody of the elephant they owned and cared for. Somewhat unfortunately for the Thai elephant population at large, the chance to see an elephant in the middle of a city such as Chiang Mai proved to be a popular pastime among tourists, and begging was soon discovered to be quite a lucrative activity. At the height of its popularity, it was reported that a mahout with their elephant could earn 15,000-30,000 Thai baht per month begging on the street, often a considerably higher income than they had previously earned in the logging industry, or than they could hope to make in the fledgling tourist entertainment industry.
As with many emerging capitalist enterprises, the sight of the genuine needs of a few being met was enough to entice many others to pursue profit in the same manner. Throughout Thailand, wealthy profiteers began purchasing elephants in large numbers, with the specific intent of renting them out to those willing to engage in street begging. Many of these individuals – often themselves driven to the occupation by poverty – were not trained Mahouts, and had limited experience caring for or controlling elephants, resulting in a high level of danger to the elephants, themselves, and other humans in the city streets. With the ensuing ubiquity of street begging elephants, competition in heavily populated areas no doubt took a toll on individual profit margins, and fatigued elephants were – and are – routinely administered alcohol and amphetamines, and subjected to horrendous physical abuses, in order to work longer hours.
The relative popularity of baby elephants amongst tourists, as well as their smaller size, also led to high demand for infant elephants by those engaged in street begging. For a handler wishing to force their elephant to perform in a Chiang Mai bar street or tourist market, for instance, the profit margins would be much higher and the risks and overall effort significantly reduced if that elephant was an infant, as opposed to an adolescent or adult elephant. Being easier to transport, control, and hide from authorities, the popularity of baby elephants in street begging has, over the past decades, led to a practice of calves being poached from the wild and illegally smuggled to supply demand, or otherwise separated from their mothers at unnaturally early times, sometimes when they are no older than 6 months. Elephants in the street begging trade are invariably malnourished, unable to eat a healthy amount of food during their long hours on city streets. Unfortunately, it has been reported that some handlers also deliberately withhold food in order to limit the size of infant elephants, in an attempt to maintain or increase their profitability.
In addition to pervasive malnutrition, physical abuse, forced drug use, and fatigue, myriad other dangers await young elephants forced to beg for money in Thai cities. Some of these include unnatural environmental hazards, such as damage to the elephants’ feet from long hours on concrete, nails, broken glass, and other debris, damage to their respiratory system and contamination of their food by pollution, such as that produced by vehicle exhaust, and the ever-present risk of slips and falls on unnatural surfaces, as well as injuries sustained from falls into open storm drains and sewers. Other hazards include electrocution, increased risk of disease, and problems related to a lack of adequate shade or sun protection, such as heatstroke and dehydration. One of the deadliest dangers elephants face on city streets is the risk of traffic accidents, with countless accidents resulting in the death or injury of elephants, humans, or both. In 2002, an average of 15-20 traffic accidents involving elephants in Thai cities were reported every month.
It has been estimated that life in a city may reduce an elephant’s lifespan by up to 50%. In addition to the physical stresses listed above, the psychological toll of living in an environment as unnatural as a busy city can have disastrous effects on an elephant’s wellbeing. Street begging elephants often succumb to psychological damage caused by sensory overload, receiving an excessive amount of visual and auditory stimulation, in addition to the sensitive pads in their feet being overloaded with vibratory input. In addition, to evade authorities, street begging elephants are often tied up for long hours or hidden in unsafe and unsanitary environments, such as garbage dumps or roadside ditches.
In cities such as Bangkok, Phuket, and Chiang Mai, the use of elephants to beg on the streets has historically been a persistent problem in spite of legislative attempts to prevent it. An estimated 2009 population of 100 elephants used in street begging within the city limits of Bangkok alone prompted the implementation of 2010 legislation prohibiting elephant handlers from profiting off their animals in the city, and holding them liable for any property damage caused by their elephants. Previous legislation attempting to place an inner city ban on elephants in Chiang Mai and Bangkok had done little to reduce the numbers of elephants begging in the cities, and it is only within the past decade that increased penalties have succeeded in quelling the activity in these places. However, the practice of elephant street begging still persists elsewhere in Thailand, such as Phuket, as well as in other Asian countries, and many worry that the loss of income for elephant owners caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may cause the numbers of elephants begging in Thai cities to increase once again.
Legislation pertaining to the ownership and management of, and interaction with, Asian elephants has existed in some form for millennia. The first law related to elephants in India – certainly one of the first worldwide – was written in the ‘Arthashastra’ by Kautilya, completed between 200BC and 300AD. Ideally, each of the vast number of laws in existence internationally would disavow human interests and exist solely for the purposes of protecting and promoting the welfare of elephant populations. Unfortunately, this often is not the case. Elephants are defined, categorised, and otherwise mentioned in such a broad array of legislation, acts, and treaties – many of which now considered archaic – that the animals themselves are often immersed in a kind of legal quagmire, with uncertainty surrounding their status and with whom (if anyone) the responsibility to protect their welfare lies.
In Thailand alone, Asian elephants are included in at least 18 Acts, administered by at least 5 Government Ministries. Problematically, 17 of these Acts deal almost exclusively with wild elephant protection and conservation, meaning that domestic Thai elephants are at the mercy of the antiquated Draught Animal Act of 1939, which classifies domestic Thai elephants as beasts of burden alongside horses, donkeys, and oxen. The Act exists primarily to outline the rights and obligations of animal owners and does not offer ethical treatment standards or welfare guidelines.
A 2016 amendment to the Act sought to prevent the laundering of wild Thai elephants into the domestic population through the creation of a DNA database containing samples from all domestic elephants in Thailand, as well as requiring owners to register elephant births within 90 days. Former measures included microchips and an easily forged photo ID system, and owners were previously only required to register elephants at 8 years of age. While these changes undoubtedly represent a small step forward, matters are further complicated by the fact that the domestic elephant registration system is managed by two separate ministries, which share limited communication and whose databases often do not match.