Anantara Blogs Elephant Tails

Trunked Up Trickle Down? (An Elephant Welfare State)

By John Roberts
4 October 2016 00:06:00

I was having dinner with a friend the other night.

I’ll pause there to allow you to get over the shock that, given my ascetic lifestyle and acerbic manner, I have time & inclination for dinner let alone friends.

Right, as I was saying, dinner with a friend who is looking to set up a business in the mahouts’ home village, currently holding 200 or so eles it doesn’t have the food to feed, the space (or will) to exercise, and a massive diaspora out in the tourist towns making livings the only way they know how.

It has long been one of my mantras that anything that helps the elephant owners make money without over-working or otherwise abusing, confusing, accusing, misusing (stringing out & worse) their eles is a good thing and ought to be encouraged so encourage I did.

But by the end of the evening though I seemed to have veered even further to the right than a politician who is losing debates but craves the cheers of a crowd he knows love him.  I have spent the best part of the last thirteen years dedicated to making mahouts richer, not so rich that they could buy another elephant, but rich enough that they can look after the one their culture tells them they have to have better.

The trouble is, I have come to believe that it isn’t occurring to the mahouts to invest extra cash they raise on the care of their elephants.  Why would that be?

I hit upon one of the best rabble rousing bogeymen in the politicians’ arsenal - the Welfare State.  This idea that if you help out the poorer in the community with direct financial contributions you’ll encourage everyone to relax and live the highlife off those taxes your accountants haven’t found creative ways for you to dodge.  

A rich man’s worry - not something I have need to be troubled by personally.

In some of the world’s less developed countries people even frown on the idea that the state should help those less well off have access to basic health care.

So, despite the direct and unhappy protestations of my liberal, green tea drinking (literally as I type), muesli eating (check my, wait, no take my word for it) self I’m going to tell you I think one reason we are failing elephants is that we have created a welfare state for them and, worse still, that it started with basic health care.

One of the reasons Thailand has produced some of the world’s best elephant vets, undoubtedly the reason it has some of the world’s most healthy elephants is that it has provided health care free of charge to any elephant, for any condition, no questions asked for as long as I can remember but probably for a lot longer - I have only been here 13 years.

This is great as any vet will tell you the reason they got into being a vet was that they wanted to help animals (they’ll also usually tell you that they first thought of being a human doctor but the thought of working on a single species that could actually tell you what was wrong would have been way too easy) so the ability to do this on an iconic, intelligent, endangered-in-the-wild species that is part of your country’s heritage is a dream come true.

It is also worthy.  Even as recently as when I arrived in Thailand, mahouts and elephants were in a hard way, they were struggling in sometimes deadly illegal jobs in logging; tourism was failing them, they were begging on the streets - there was no money in the system.

A mahout with a sick wife had trouble looking after her, let alone a sick elephant, there were no margins.

In those days, when we asked a mahout to return home from street begging, or to retire his elephant - in the days before well meaning foreigners would effectively buy him a new elephant to retire that elephant as happens today - he would say: “I can’t, not only do I have to live I have to feed my elephant and, now the forest’s cut, I have no food back home”.

So we, along with others, answered this conundrum by saying, head home (or to our forest) old man, WE will ensure that you have fodder, shelter for you, your family & your elephant, veterinary care (either by the state or our vet team - see even then, us being a business I didn’t believe that we should cost the state money that could be used to help other, less well off eles) and what’s more, we’ll pay you a generous rent to be there - a living wage and beyond.

This was a worthy exercise, no doubt, for the conditions of the times.

I am going to argue that now - thanks to market forces driven by businesses some of whom, born in the above movement, decided the best thing to do for an elephant was to take it from the mahout’s control with money raised overseas - when an elephant is worth more than my house and car combined, there is no such thing as a poor elephant owner.

Where trekking tourism is in such an upswing (despite misplaced calls to boycott the better camps) that mahouts can demand three times the National Minimum Wage PLUS all the things we agreed to provide when they needed help in order just to be here.  

…and if we don’t provide feel comfortable that they can make more money in a trekking camp (one reason we have so few elephants under the Foundation right now is that I feel that, you, the donors, didn’t give us money to prolong this situation).

If there is even such thing as a poor mahout it is because his elephant's owner is not looking after him well.

Because we have provided this for so long I don’t think it even occurs to mahouts now, when they have extra cash, to invest it in their elephants’ welfare and this is worrying.


1, A call went out this week for funds to provide milk for a baby elephant, the mother gave birth but, as happens, doesn’t produce enough to keep the elephant going - against the rant of this piece, we may even help - but I ask you, ought we?  Given that the mother will be a working elephant, either rented to a trekking camp for a monthly wage or owned by that camp and therefore an asset of a business expected to earn her keep plus profit, given that the baby will be worth 3,000,000 baht in two to three years (or at least that is what the owner was likely speculating when he got the mother pregnant) in what other business would we not call on the asset owner to invest in his own asset and buy the milk from money he should have saved for this instance - as the rest of us do when making business/investment decisions - when he decided to get the mother pregnant.

2, Take an elephant with chronic injuries that can be held in check with antibiotics but that the vets recommend can, more than likely, be cured with operation.  Mahouts, being a traditional bunch, don’t generally like the idea of sedation for elephants (some believe it will hinder future reproduction) so, despite the fact that the antibiotics are costing the vet team a vast amount of money and that it is counter the elephant’s welfare the mahout refuses invasive treatment for the elephant (which would be provided free of charge).

3, A nine year old elephant is impregnated, something that can happen in the wild and in Zoo’s but is equivalent to a nine year old human child being impregnated - yes in the wild a family group can help raise the infant but the foetus will take from the child resources that should be going into her own development.  As it turns out the 9 y.o. is too small to carry the foetus to term and is horrifically injured in delivering the dead foetus.

This is not part of an investigation, just three cases that have fallen across my desk these past few months and written without deep thought, I'm pretty sure I could cite many such cases and I could certainly give you pettier ones from here that we see on a daily basis.

I’m not saying we should cease to provide vet care, indeed the Foundation has two projects that we are working on funding - as well as our own, wonderful, vet team - to provide care to eles well beyond our borders but we need, somehow, to introduce a thought process to a mahout that, say, when he gets his mother pregnant (with all those awful freudian connotations) that he weighs the risks of that pregnancy and prepares for them, or when he decides to take his elephant to a Pattaya trekking camp to earn 40,000 baht a month that he puts some money aside for the time when the elephant is sick.

We DO certainly need to stop buying old, injured and retired elephants at replacement prices because, that, along with our understandable welfare state, takes away any and all human downsides of making the wrong decision for your elephant.

Otherwise, like a rich kid with a Ferrari who knows it will always be repaired and replaced by a doting family, there’s no incentive not to drive your elephant recklessly.

Unlike the old days there are plentiful opportunities to make a good living while playing less fast and loose with what should be a family friend as well as an asset, too often the only trickle down the elephants see is from their morning shower (& that only if someone else is paying the water bill).

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