In Foreign Parts: Banned from the city, stray elephants tiptoe around the concrete jungle to beg a living

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The Independent Online

Elephants tiptoe. Well, nearly. It's the way their soft feet are structured. But they cannot sneak around the concrete jungle.

Elephants tiptoe. Well, nearly. It's the way their soft feet are structured. But they cannot sneak around the concrete jungle.

Since Bangkok banished elephants to the city limits last month, the 150 stray pachyderms that normally roam the night traffic must be furtive, or risk being rounded up and confiscated by authorities. Yet dozens of the patient grey beasts continue to weave between streetwalkers and stallholders, posing for photographs or giving polite handshakes with their trunks on cue.

Any mahout caught with his elephant in the capital faces four years in prison and a fine of 100,000 baht (£1,400).

"Elephants do not belong on the streets of Bangkok," said Lieutenant-Colonel Thana-wat Wattanakul, the police officer who arrested two elephant trainers and confiscated seven of the beasts a few weeks ago.

He grumbled that the outsized animals block traffic and are rarely insured. If a car nudges one behind the knees, it will not result in an ordinary fender bender. Off balance, the elephant will sit down hard and crush the unfortunate car which rear-ends it. "Who is going to pay for that?" the policeman demanded.

Laws against city elephants have been on the books for years, but were enforced rarely. Officially, elephants are prohibited from using highways, obstructing the flow of traffic, or fouling the roads. (Their urine can eat paint away.)

Without a health certificate, the tuskers are not supposed to leave their home districts, though some are trucked to tourist hot spots or temples. At the age of 61, working elephants must be set loose in the forest for mandatory retirement, and often survive till they are 80, revered for their strength and size. But a logging ban has put many elephants out of work prematurely, and owners are increasingly tempted to send them to to beg for their supper in the city.

On a typical night cadging handouts outside Bangkok's karaoke bars and massage parlours, an elephant can make as much as £50. Munching roadside leaves coated with car fumes can induce an elephantine bellyache, so passers-by are urged to treat the creatures to 50p packets of vegetables or sugar cane sold by their handlers.

Baby elephants attract the most admirers and are nimble at splashing through sewage culverts to dodge the law enforcers. To traverse the city safely, one enterprising mahout straps a nightclub glow-stick on the stubby tail of his three-ton she-elephant and lets her wander home in the slow lane while he snoozes on her back. This impromptu tail-light seems to do the trick: taxis, lorries and coaches whiz around the pair lumbering up Rama IV Road after midnight.

They bed down on a vacant lot beneath an overpass and rise for a dawn bath in a polluted canal. Bangkok's residents are alternately charmed or appalled by the antics of urban elephants.

With their livelihood suddenly under threat, 500 mahouts have set out from Surin province atop their elephant charges for an extraordinary protest march to the capital. Most of these animals are pang, tuskless female work elephants with heads freckled from sunburn. Their forest cover has been degraded, and city streets offer scant shade.

Suriya Ruampattana, the village elder who is leading the caravan, says inedible stands of eucalyptus trees have replaced the mixed forests in Surin province and cannot support herds of hungry elephants. He wants the Thai government to supply fodder and jobs for the trainers, if it restricts the animals from foraging in the capital. "Mahouts and elephants will die of starvation if they stay home. We don't want to wander," he said. For stop-gap nourishment, charities are donating corn cobs and pineapple stalks. Elephants will devour five times as much as a hungry cow, and are sniffy about nibbling anything rotten.

To avoid a dramatic showdown, the Prime Minister's office has devised a clever bulk buy-out. The Deputy Prime Minister, Chavalit Yongchai-yudh, offered to pay up to £286 for each elephant and transfer it to a sanctuary run by the Defence Ministry near the Burmese border. He has few takers. General Chavalit suspects wealthy owners are financing this awesome elephant train to gain public sympathy. Businessmen would prefer their elephants, and their underpaid handlers, to walk Bangkok's streets with impunity.