Elephants: The Elephant In The Room
Elephants, revered symbols of Thailand’s glorified past, have long walked side by side with the monarchy and common farmers alike. The indispensable role of elephants in Thai society has been captured in countless tales and works of art along temple walls. More recently, elephants have been represented as cultural icons and used in the commercial branding of countless products. One would be hard pressed to look in any direction in the capital and not find an elephant motif somewhere. But for all the iconic representations of elephants as symbols of strength, dignity and prosperity, in reality the only elephants seen in Bangkok are those being led by their mahouts, wandering the congested streets begging.
Groups of mahouts from farming villages in Surin province have long been coming to Bangkok to squat in fields and walk the streets, offering tourists the opportunity to feed their pet elephants sugarcane for a couple of dollars. With no income beyond a short farming season, the mahouts claim that traveling to urban centres with their elephants is a matter of survival.
Although it is illegal to bring elephants into Bangkok, the poverty in Thailand’s rural areas, the loss of the elephants’ natural habitat, the resulting threat of starvation and the elephant’s special status in Thai history evoke sympathy among Thais. Most police, politicians and citizens continue to turn a blind eye to the urban elephants, failing to address the underlying issues and allowing the situation to remain ‘the elephant in the room.’