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The Land-mine and the Damage Done

By John Roberts
12 January 2015 05:17:00

Have you ever negotiated with a mahout? If you have a feel for it you know from the first stanza whether you’re going to win or lose. 

You know because they’ll sit down in all seriousness and the first reason they give you that they cannot do as you ask that will be so easily rebuffed that a rookie negotiator will think they are winning.

But the rookie negotiator would be wrong.  

What that means is that the mahout has a very big reason why he doesn’t want to do what you ask but he doesn’t want to tell you what it is because, very politely, he doesn’t want to make you lose face by losing a debate you’re going to lose anyway.

What that also means is that, even though you know you’ve lost, you know you’re going to have to spend the next half hour rebuffing lots of other minor reasons why what you’ve asked is unacceptable so that neither of you loses face.

From that first rebuff the best you can really hope for - though this takes a very good negotiator - is to find out the real reason they don’t want to do what you want them to do.

If, however, they start out with a sensible reason why what you’re asking is unacceptable then you know you’re onto a winner and you can both work to solve one another's issues, if reason number one is a good one then there’s generally room for compromise.

Unfortunately I knew we’d lost yesterday’s debate from the moment we drove out to the front gate of the TECC to save our fellow negotiators the bother of walking in from the road.

They didn’t seem happy to see us, they knew they’d spend the next half hour talking in circles trying not to tell us what we needed to know and so, rather than a smiling Wai and happy chatter we got a nervous Wai and silence.

None of the above is negative, it is just how it is, the Thai way of saying no thank you - just good manners.

Plai Pooja is a handsome young bull who stepped on a land-mine while clearing a dam site up in Burma, it took them four days to get to a road and several more to get him to the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre where, good people that the TECC are, they’ll give him free treatment as long as he needs it despite the fact that he was illegally in a foreign country when the accident happened.

We felt sorry not only for him but for the family who had presumably lost an income, we’re in a position to help so an offer was made - we’d more than cover all the costs for the time that he is in hospital and then look after him up here once he is able to leave.

Our Foundation model doesn’t depend on having elephants on site, we run a separate business and Foundation so we can afford to be purely altruistic, the business already looks after enough elephants to keep guests happy, there’s no ulterior motive in making the offer - we want to help the ele and to do this we recognise we have to help the mahout.

The only string attached was that, on leaving hospital, Plai Pooja must stay with us for at least one year, this was added at the suggestion of Dr Sittidet, Chief Vet. of the TECC, on the logic that if you pay a mahout only to have his elephant in hospital there’s less disincentive to him sending an elephant to do dangerous work - Dr Sittidet also (unnecessarily as it is against our policy for the very reasons he outlines) urged us not to buy the elephant.

All this had been done over the phone so, when we set off yesterday, we thought we’d be taking the owners to lunch, having them sign the contract then calling the accountants and shipping the first payment - them happy to be helped, us?  Happy to help.  Everyone happy.

I’ve mentioned the nervous Wais so I knew what was coming, but I didn’t know in what form.

We sat down across the makeshift treatment table in the hospital, Plai Pooja himself already gone to the forest.

“We’ve been thinking. We’re not sure the elephant will be safe in the Golden Triangle” - without pointing out that the last job he sent the ele to included land mines and rebel armies we set out the safety precautions we take.

“Ahhh, well, how do we know he’ll get enough food” - we listed the fodder all elephants get on a daily basis plus additional browse.

“Ahhh, but my son doesn’t think there’ll be enough night-life”…. & so on before we get back to “The Golden Triangle, isn’t that a dangerous area?”.

Eventually we boil down to “I don’t want to rent the elephant, I want to sell”.  OK, been through this before, we don’t buy eles but I’ll ask anyway, “how much do you want for him?”

Gives figure close to the going rate for a fit elephant close to the Myanmar border.

“But he’s hurt, he’ll never work again!”

 "He might get better”

“That’s not what the vets say”

“I think he’ll be OK to do logging”

“Seriously, I’ve just had a long chat with Thailand’s best elephant veterinary team, he’s not going to get better enough to log”

…and then the real, real reason.  

“I can make 2,000 baht a day with a logging elephant, I need to sell Plai Pooja for enough money that I can buy a logging elephant, send it back into Burma and continue making 2,000 baht a day.  I’m sure I’ll find a buyer for him by the time he’s ready to leave hospital”

You know what?  He’s right, I bet you I could start a campaign now and raise the money to buy Plai Pooja, maybe even from you Dear Readers, from my guests and from the internet - look at the photos, even better I could tell you that the mahout was planning to send poor Pooja logging again and that we couldn’t let this happen.

I bet you we could raise that figure in a matter of the months that Pooja will be in hospital.

Of course I won't, can't, start a campaign to buy Plai Pooja, we can never be about just one elephant, we will however leave the sustainable rescue offer on the table and see what happens.

The owner, though, has faith that someone else will buy him for the asking price and, yes, Pooja will have a happy end to a sad life but some other poor elephant, probably living wild given the geography we’re talking about, will be taken from that wild and sent logging into land-mine, rebel army territory and, when he steps on a mine, someone will buy him too and another elephant will come from the wild.

The damage that comes from a land mine, sad as it is, hurts one elephant and can be treated, the damage that comes from giving owners “replacement” sums of money for elephants that have been wilfully put at risk hurts all elephants and with them the forest that depends on them.

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