Stealing an elephant march

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 September, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 September, 1997, 12:00am

Does Indonesia covet the Thai elephant? The Land of Smiles has dark suspicions that the Indonesians are trying to steal their pachyderm knowhow.

Thailand lent Indonesia four elephants 16 years ago to help start a training school, but they were never seen again.

Thai officials and environmentalists are now against allowing Indonesia to 'borrow' another 10 beasts.

Indonesia has many more elephants than Thailand, but the Thais claim to be many trunk-lengths ahead in the race to domesticate elephants and train them to carry people - or more precisely tourists.

Elephant trips are seen as a powerful lure for tourists, especially those engaged in trendy 'green' holidays.

'Eco-tourism will never be possible if their elephants don't allow people on their back,' Soraida Salwala, the founder of the Friends of the Asian Elephant Foundation, said.

Thai officials said that before Thailand's four trained elephants landed in Indonesia the country had no domesticated elephants. Now it has 570.

'The truth is our elephants are taken to their elephant centres to train the wild ones,' Mr Soraida said.

However, Indonesia might take a warning from Thailand, where many unemployed mahouts and their charges trudge Bangkok's streets begging for food.