SURIN, Thailand (Reuters Life!) - Trudging the city streets with a hungry four-tonne elephant at your heels is not a job for everyone.
But add a cute baby, and tourists flock to pet and feed the grey-brown giants, making the plodding pachyderms more of an investment than a curse for modern mahouts working in Thailand, one of Asia’s top holiday destinations.
With logging banned in 1989, more babies are hitting streets and trekking camps to meet tourism-driven demand for docile, good-looking animals, said the director of the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, Richard Lair.
Big, aggressive bull elephants, who were excellent loggers were once the most prized, Lair said. Now “gorgeous young female calves” and cute babies with hairy heads and the ability to quickly learn tricks are the most sought-after.
“It’s calves that are coming in now,” he said. “They weren’t attractive in the past, as basically you have to wait twenty years for them to grow up and start logging”.
For seventeen-year Thai mahout old Aim, from the northeast city of Surin, five-year old Leo’s dancing and painting skills were evidence that spending 500,000 baht ($15,770) on the baby elephant three years ago was a good investment.
“He could already do some tricks before I bought him. I had a good feeling about him,” said Aim, who goes by only one name and whose father is also in the elephant business.
Spending nine months of the year at an elephant village near town, the pair sell rides and perform in the country’s largest elephant festival, the Surin Elephant Roundup, every November.
During peak tourist months from December to February they supplement their income on the elephant show circuit at the east coast seaside resort town of Pattaya.
“We walk around, selling sugarcane. Just for entering the show elephants get 1,000 baht ($32) or 2,000 baht. If they play football they get 2,000 baht, but Leo can’t play,” he said.
Despite being banned from streetwalking in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, roving elephants are relatively common on city outskirts.
Many street elephants work from daybreak late into the night, begging for small change outside restaurants and nightspots.
Aside from periodic crackdowns, the lumbering lawbreakers and are more likely to be moved on by authorities than fined.
But these difficulties have not deterred mahouts like Aim. “I like the freedom of being a mahout,” he said.
“Having a girlfriend is difficult, but I have Leo all the time so it’s not lonely”.
Casual elephant encounters are easy to find at trekking camps and public festivals such as those in Surin, where mahouts control the animals with a series of commands and a sharp pointed hook, called the angkus, as they weave among crowds.
“It’s great,” said German nurse Sonya Stiegler, 29, as she stood surrounded by dozens of elephants snacking on sugarcane and fruits laid out on trestle tables at the pre-festival “elephant buffet”, held on closed-off streets in the middle of Surin.
But being so close to the elephants and their mahouts also raises questions, she said.
“I saw one mahout here bumping his stick on the elephant’s head and I don’t like that. They say they’re like a member of the family but I saw a baby elephant bleeding on the head where he’d been hit. This is not how you treat family,” Stiegler added.
After a high-profile anti-elephant abuse campaign by animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in 2002 called for tourists to boycott Thailand, image remains important to the million dollar industry.
But as Thailand’s tourist boom continues, many mahouts are confident about hitching their prospects to the popular pachyderms, even if their elephants are not so easy on the eye.
Myanmar mahout Boonchu’s elephant Lilly became addicted to amphetamines given to her by her previous owners to make her work around the clock in an illegal logging camp.
Now the wrinkled ex-junkie is a star at Chiang Mai’s Elephant Nature Park rescue centre, he said.
“Lilly is slow-moving, but everybody loves her.”
Editing by Miral Fahmy