Big appetite

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 February, 2012, 12:00am


In Asia, there's an irony that deepens as the natural world dwindles to the size of a parking lot. Wild animals, once revered and assigned all kinds of spiritual meaning, are increasingly ending up as the entree.

The tiger, for instance, is no longer feared so much as coveted: as a rug, as jewellery made of fangs, as an exotic dish, or as a presumed aid for sexual prowess.

But nowhere is the irony as deep as in Thailand, where the regal elephant is now being served up on a fanciful diner's plate.

The growing taste for the meat of male elephants is now driving hunters to begin targeting female and baby elephants as well, thanks to the emergence of an army of the nouveau riche across East Asia fuelling ever more garish culinary trends.

Elephant sashimi, now apparently all the rage, is part of a mindset at once boastful and shallow - if it's the last elephant, then I will show my friends I can afford it.

So here's the irony: the Asian elephant is still a revered cultural icon in Thailand, gracing the bas-relief of temples and ancient paintings of battle scenes. But it is fast disappearing. The country whose civilisation was more or less built on the elephant's back is now turning its back on the animal.

Indeed, the elephant once served as both builder and war machine: carrying logs and rocks and uprooting trees to build palaces and temples, while fighting countless wars bedecked in armour.

Within Buddhism, Thailand's state religion and a binding force across much of the region, the elephant remains sacred. Alas, sacred is quickly cast off for cold hard cash - though illegal, poaching has now reached what environmentalists are calling a 'crisis point'.

At the beginning of the last century, there were more than 100,000 wild elephants in Thailand. A hundred years later, the population has plummeted to fewer than 3,000. Classified as an endangered species, the Asian elephant is expected to disappear from the wild altogether around 2050, if not sooner.

But while poaching is particularly abhorrent, there are other reasons behind the elephant's disappearance, including deforestation. For domesticated elephants in Thailand, deforestation means no more jobs. Logging in Thailand's forests had long relied on their strength; an elephant can pull half its weight and carry 600kg on its back. In hilly countryside where roads were small and inaccessible to trucks, an elephant was indispensable for the timber business. But logging is all but illegal now in Thailand.

An average elephant weighs five tonnes, and consumes some 200kg of food and a huge amount of water a day. That's why their owners curb breeding among the captive beasts, bringing down their number even further.

Many owners, left with no other choice, have now turned their elephants into urban beggars.

For the wild elephant, conditions are even worse. Only about 15per cent of the country is still forestland, and those patches are widely scattered. Many wild elephants resort to raiding farms for crops, where they are often shot or poisoned.

In a world where even the sacred is devoured, one has to wonder what the chances are for other species on the endangered list.

Andrew Lam is an editor at New America Media and the author of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres