Money in the trunk

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 March, 2006, 12:00am

Negotiating Bangkok's congested main roads on foot, you soon learn to dodge the usual hazards: boiling-hot soup vats, fruit stalls, dazed tourists. The soupy air and honking traffic adds to the sense of frenzy, although you quickly become accustomed to filtering out the heat and noise.

But there is one outsized obstacle that is hard to ignore: a baby elephant, padding its way along the pavement. The first time you see one, there's a shock of disbelief and a nagging sense of unreality. How did an elephant, the national symbol of Thailand, find its way onto the streets of Bangkok?

The answer is simple, and sad. That cute elephant is a profit centre for its owner, or whoever has rented its services. The trick is for the animal's handlers to persuade passing tourists - who invariably stop and gape - to buy bundles of sugar cane to feed the elephant. At 20 baht ($4) a bag, it's easy money. Late-night bars offer good pickings, as drunken revellers lap up the thrill of feeding the lumbering beasts.

It has long been illegal to bring elephants into Bangkok, but that doesn't seem to stop the practice. Animal welfare groups complain that it's dangerous for the animals to be out on the streets, where they run the risk of being hit by passing cars or made ill by car fumes. They estimate that dozens of elephants are kept at sites around the city and led into town at night, ready to catch the next wave of tourists tickled by the novelty.

Every so often, local officials say they are cracking down on the scam, but somehow the elephants seem to slip in, absurd as that may sound. How hard can it be to spot a pachyderm in Bangkok?

A former Bangkok governor once proposed using microchips to track elephants and catch repeat offenders, although the details were quickly lost in the guffaws of laughter that greeted this pearl of wisdom.

On one recent evening, as I crossed a footbridge over Sukhumvit Road, I found both sides of the street occupied by elephants and their handlers. I gritted my teeth as a smiling handler held out a bag of sugar cane. 'Feed elephant?' he asked. I snarled back that an elephant belonged in the countryside, not the city. He turned away to the next passer-by.

Of course, there's an economic reason why elephants are reduced to begging in Bangkok. Their habitat is shrinking and there's less demand for their labour in the countryside, so they become a burden on their owners.

Indeed, you could argue that the elephants which tourists see are the lucky ones. But that doesn't make it any more palatable to see a baby elephant lurch along the polluted thoroughfares of Bangkok, begging for change.