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How would you like your red herring served? (or the dangers of a head turning penis)

By John Roberts
28 January 2012 08:13:00

In the old days, in a different country and a different life, I used to work in a business more sensitive to the Government of that country than elephants usually are to Thailand and in a particular way as to invite regular Government scrutiny - nothing rabble rousing or, in my opinion, controversial, in fact, so uncontroversial that official permission was obtainable to do it (as is the way of things, people doing far worse went unmolested for not having asked permission).

Part of the maintaining permission was to subject ourselves to regular (but not frequent) inspections by officials of the Ministry; the potential sensitivity of the work meant that various Ministers down the years had meddled in the job of setting up the rules and regulations by which those with permission must abide - often without canceling the old regulations.

The result was a confusing mix of, often contradictory, usually impractical regulations by which to work.  The attitude of the inspectors was, knowing full well that the un-permitted were working unmolested and often causing damage, to find something that we were doing wrong to report but to leave us to get the work done the rest of the year.

Not naturally devious but endowed with lazy minds, after several of these inspections - having dutifully rectified the complaint from the previous visit only to have the inspectors dig deeper and find something more difficult to fix - and finding no penalty to having faults discovered as long as a proper attitude of polite contrition was adopted we decided to leave an easily fixable flagrant breach of the regulations for each inspection visit to find.

The inspector was happy because he had something to report, we were happy because the thing he told us to fix was easily fixable and specifically chosen to be something we didn’t want to do in the first place and everyone could get down to the important task of home-made whisky, tasty dinner and dancing the old dances in the jungle.

This situation is far from unique, the English term for what we left is, I believe, a red herring (though know not why - sub. ed. Google please).

Fast forward to Thailand, 2012.

There’s something fishy going on, a stink is being raised throughout the world and the stench (to me & several others closer to the action) carries the distinct whiff of rotting red herring.

On the 15th, in these pages, I gave a press run down of the case of several poached elephants found in Keang Krachan National Park, the point of the piece was not only to bring the story to your attention but also to point out that the poaching of elephants for ivory, for wild capture (to sell to tourist businesses) and, in a new twist, to eat - initially much was made in the Thai press of the penis of one elephant having been eaten - seemed to have been going on with impunity for a very long time and that if we wanted to stop it now would be an ideal time to try and keep the story in the public eye.

Time passed and the world turned, I posted links & watched the papers.

Having reached my rare old age I’m rarely surprised, but I was surprised by the number of surprised faces behind the press conference desks and officials who declared their own surprise when this news started coming out - after all, though I don’t pretend anyone reads the rantings of myself from the soap box of these here pages (though the ivory & the wild capture for sale to tourism camps have been mentioned regularly enough here) but because, also often linked from here, influential people have for years been pointing out that this was an issue - if you were interested in elephants or wildlife in Thailand I think it is safe to say that there is no excuse for not knowing that some, usually well informed, people were sure that people were bringing elephants out of the wild for tourism and, more recently, the idea of hunting elephants for ivory had re-raised it’s ugly head.

That thing about foreigners eating the elephant’s penis?  Well, that did surprise me not that it happens (lots of people around here eat lots of things & the symbolism, if you are what you eat, is obvious) but that it was being mentioned on a large enough scale to be an issue, let’s face it there are major, multi-billion dollar, long running, illegal international trades in both ivory and in live young elephants - the latter not well documented but anecdotally noted by organisations such as Traffic (& me every time some idiot gives me a soap box and a pint of beer).

30,000 baht for a meal of fresh elephant penis?  That may grab the headlines for a second (which is why it is in the title & I keep repeating it - let’s see how many extra hits I get) but it surely is not the issue here, as Edwin Wiek said in his piece Thai Elephants Being Killed for Tourist Dollars in the English language paper The Nation newspaper, talking of the alleged elephant restaurant: “....neither the Natural Resources and Environmental Crime Suppression Division (NRECD), at the Royal Thai Police, or the office of the Phuket governor have found any evidence that such a place exists. Nor can the official that made the statement give any weight to his claim.”

In previous missives I’ve referred to a village in Phrae that makes a habit of it, of starving North Vietnamese cadres who ate elephant (& didn’t like it); a quick chat with folks who spend their time in the shadows of the world’s borderlands this morning turned up one or two who had seen elephant meat, sometimes penis, as special items when available in restaurants in the kinds of places you don’t want to be.

All were, however, of the opinion that it was a byproduct of the better known and far more lucrative trades (ivory requires a dead elephant; for calves, it is claimed - & becoming believable in the light of these events - mothers and aunties are shot) than being the main reason a poor farmer is paid a year’s wages to shoulder his gun & move into the forest after elephants.

In his piece Edwin goes on to say “It seems like a deliberately made-up claim, for whatever reason, but the real reason for the killing of these elephants could be explained in a much easier way”.

...and here we come back to the stench of red herring, I agree with Edwin, even if the claim has some grain of truth it is not the crux of the matter, would it not be easier if I were in the elephant poaching business (especially if an elephant is missing a penis & everyone seems fascinated in this story, the public reaction - shock in Buddhist, elephant revering Thailand, titillation across the sea - fans the flames) to send everyone, Department spokespeople, National Park rangers, law enforcement agencies, press, public opinion, everyone looking for the one or two places that might put elephant on their menu when it is available (& the folks who think it will enhance them) than have everyone poking around where it really matters.

At the risk of being seen, once again, to be enhancing my own click rate, I’ll finish with a quote from a guy called Deep Throat (or at least the movie about him), a man who helped ensure journalists told the right story and didn’t get caught up in the webs of intrigue left out for them.  His advice?

“Follow the money”


Jumbo problem: ‘Elephant cuisine’ fad poses fresh extinction threat


BANGKOK: A new taste for eating elephant meat- everything from trunks to sex organs - has emerged in Thailand and could pose a new threat to the survival of the species. Wildlife officials told The Associated Press that they were alerted to the practice after finding two elephants slaughtered last month in a national park in western Thailand. 

"The poachers took away the elephants' sex organs and trunks ... for human consumption," Damrong Phidet, the director-general of Thailand's wildlife agency, said in a telephone interview. Some meat was to be consumed without cooking, like "elephant sashimi", he said. Poachers typically just remove tusks, which are commonly found on Asian male elephants and fetch thousands of dollars on the black market. A market for elephant meat, however, could lead to killing of the wider elephant population, Damrong said. 

"If you keep hunting elephants for this, then they'll become extinct," he said. Consuming elephant meat is not common in Thailand, but some Asian cultures believe consuming animals' reproductive organs can boost sexual prowess. Damrong said that the elephant meat was ordered by restaurants in Phuket, a popular travel destination in the country's south. It wasn't clear if the diners were foreigners. 

The accusation drew a quick rebuttal from Phuket governor Tri Akradecha, who told Thai media that he had never heard of such restaurants but ordered officials to look into the matter. Poaching elephants is banned, and trafficking or possessing poached animal parts also is illegal. Elephant tusks are sought in the illegal ivory trade, and baby wild elephants are sometimes poached to be trained for talent shows. 

"The situation has come to a crisis point. The longer we allow these cruel acts to happen, the sooner they will become extinct," Damrong said. 

The quest for ivory remains the top reason poachers kill elephants in Thailand, other environmentalists say. 

Soraida Salwala, the founder of Friends of the Asian Elephant foundation, said a full grown pair of tusks could be sold from 1 million to 2 million baht ($31,600 to $63,300), while the estimated value of an elephant's penis is more than 30,000 baht ($950). 

"There's only a handful of people who like to eat elephant meat, but once there's demand, poachers will find it hard to resist the big money," she cautioned. 

Thailand has fewer than 3,000 wild elephants and about 4,000 domesticated elephants, according to the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department. 

The pachyderms were a mainstay of the logging industry in the northern and western parts of the country until logging contracts were revoked in the late 1980s. 

Domesticated animals today are used mainly for heavy lifting and entertainment. 

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