Read the passage below and then answer all the questions which follow below.
Sad Plight of the Asian Elephant
Every year in November, the Elephant Fair and Roundup in the north-eastern town of Surin celebrates a time when the mammoth beast bestrode the Thai landscape and psyche like a colossus. For more than seven hundred years, this intelligent creature served as Thailand’s primary mode of transportation, penetrating precious teak forests, thundering across battlefields, performing ceremonial duties and serving the king and the royal court.
Marshalling about 140 domesticated elephants, mahouts or elephant keepers show how the animals were once used as “armour” to advance against an enemy fortress. To the throb of drums, warriors sway in howdahs bristling with spears while swordsmen shield each elephant’s legs. After the fortress is “taken”, the victorious Thai king appears astride the neck of a richly caparisoned tusker, and an announcer tells the several hundred spectators: “These scenes are like a dream. They can only be found on the walls of ancient temples.”
A modern scene involving Thai elephants is more like a nightmare. Due mainly to habitat loss, Asian elephants are an endangered species. With the wild population down to fewer than 45,000, the situation has become so urgent that the US government is spending $5 million a year over five years for conservation and protection programmes.
In Thailand, only 1350 elephants still roam freely and another 2500 animals languish in captivity. Only a century ago, hundreds of thousands of the huge creatures were on the loose throughout Asia. But prized as beasts of burden, they were rounded up, sometimes in entire herds, and put to work. Now they are being worked to death.
In an elephant hospital located in the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, near the secluded hillside town of Lampang, north of Bangkok, a nervous beast named Pung Kammee is being treated for amphetamine addiction. Nearby, 45-year-old Sidor Kamlar is recovering from gaping wounds on his hips and legs. Meanwhile, at the edge of the hospital grounds, four men with massive staves are trying to pry a 40-year-old cow named Suphan off the forest floor. Abandoned by illegal loggers, her once magnificent body has been reduced to a skeleton.
Since it was founded in 1994 by Soraida Salwala, a passionate conservationist, the world’s first modern elephant hospital has treated about 300 cases in its intensive-care unit and infirmaries. Among those in its care are victims of cruelty and overwork, dying orphans and ageing castoffs. Once, elephant handlers were bound to their animals by respect, affection and mutual dependence. Now, illegal loggers prod elephants like Suphan with knives and spears to keep them working at top speed. And many are fed amphetamines to push them far beyond their normal capacity. Dr Preecha Phuangkum, the hospital’s medical director, sighed, “For hundreds of years men treated elephants as friends. Now they treat an elephant like a car: if it breaks down, they get rid of it and find a new one.”
Tourism likewise takes a toll. Poorly trained animals tumble down hillsides while toting tourists on so-called jungle tracks. Snatched too early from their mothers by ignorant hotel promoters and elephant-show operators, cute calves are fed indigestible milk and pesticide-tainted vegetables that cause illness and early death. Some elephants are brought to the hospital by mahouts as an alternative to having them slaughtered for meat.
Soraida became obsessed with the elephant’s plight at the age of eight. One day, she and her father chanced on a tusker lying wounded by the roadside, his stomach heaving, his owner weeping nearby. He’d been hit by a truck. “Please take him to hospital,” she pleaded with her father. Of course, it was impossible. Nothing could be done. Soraida heard a gunshot as they drove away, and she asked her father, “Why did he have to walk on the road?” That question remains with her to this day.
A hundred years ago, forest covered as much as 90 per cent of Thailand and accommodated as many as 300,000 elephants, a third of them domesticated and holding down essential jobs. Among princes and peasants, in courts and rice paddies, the elephant was deeply enmeshed in the fabric of traditional life. Its image graced scores of Buddhist temples as well as royal palaces. At one time, a white elephant was even the symbol that appeared on the national flag, which is why Westerners called the country the Land of the White Elephant.
Today Thailand’s green canopy covers less than 20 per cent of the land, and elephant numbers are plummeting. It’s the same story across the rest of the region. Like its larger African relative, the Asian elephant is in decline throughout its range. The once teeming herds vanished as farmers stripped forests and lush greenlands. The fragmented populations that are left have been boxed into national parks, which are under unremitting attack by poachers, woodcutters and land-grabbers.
To make matters worse, elephants are still being used by log poachers to help destroy much of what remains of their precious habitat. They heave and struggle to tow logs in some of Thailand’s last great forest reserves. There, outlawed logging is a business rife with treachery, corruption and death. Able to tread where machines cannot go, these slave labourers are essential to the log poachers. The animals, forced to work at breakneck speed at night, are often injured. Extreme fatigue leads to internal bleeding and susceptibility to disease.
In Thailand, elephant tourism has proliferated in recent years. Visitors can ride atop an elephant to view the ruins of ancient capitals or the villages of hill-tribe minorities. On a cool morning in the forests of Chiang Mai, tourists from Japan, England, France and Italy clamber excitedly aboard a dozen elephants for a trek through an idyllic valley. “Pai, pai!” (“Go, go!”) The mahouts prod their charges whenever the animals decide that foraging is more fun than walking. But nobody bothers to discipline a nine-month-old who presses up against her mother during the excursion and butts the visitors after they dismount in quest of bananas.
But in another scene at an outdoor bar in the seaside resort of Hua Hin, an elephant drapes its trunk round a European tourist and a Thai prostitute. Its mahout tries to cajole the couple into buying a small bag of cucumbers to feed the hulking tusker. You can see the same degrading spectacle every day in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, where these once-venerated animals have been reduced to begging in the streets.
Adapted from article by Anthony Mecir Reader’s Digest Oct 2000