BANGKOK - Polo players from around the world recently competed in a match on the riverbanks of Bangkok, except that instead of horses, they were riding elephants.
Thirty elephants, with their mahouts, took turns to play on the grass field for the annual King's Cup Elephant Polo Tournament, which was held from March 9 to 12. Of the 30, 25 were "unemployed" from Surin in northeast Thailand, where these privately-owned elephants have been living, mostly chained and in poor conditions.
They played for half an hour per day for four days in exchange for food and veterinary care, as well as to raise funds for their own kind. As the elephant population continues to grow, the government and conservationists are left scrambling to find ways to protect the pachyderms from trafficking and inappropriate tourism.
Until seven years ago, elephants could be found begging on Bangkok streets, enticing tourists to feed them or take photos for a fee. But the city has cracked down on the street trade and the elephants have been given microchips and sent to the provinces. Some became unemployed and neglected as their mahouts needed to seek work elsewhere, while some have ended up working in trekking camps.
While this has kept them employed, Mr John Roberts, director of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, noted that conditions in some camps still need a lot of improvement.
Those in the elephant tourism business have also found ways to go around the microchip rule, which was originally used as a veterinary tool for record-keeping, he said.
"Some elephants have several chips, some apparently have had chips removed, some recycled from dead animals and some, it seems, have had chips inserted when perhaps they should not have done so," Mr Roberts told The Straits Times.
Another measure by the government aimed at protecting its elephants is a DNA registration system.
Started in October 2016, it mandates that the DNA of domesticated elephants be submitted within 90 days of birth to distinguish them from their wild counterparts. Elephant camps are not required to register their animals until they are eight years old. Conservation groups have found that wild baby elephants are sometimes captured and passed off as captive-born for the lucrative tourism and entertainment industry. Domesticated elephants were previously registered with the Interior Ministry using identification documents based on the animals' rough marks.
Mr Roberts said that DNA, while difficult to measure in the field, is not possible to fake repeatedly and is therefore a better system of tracking the elephants. But DNA sampling is not free from controversy either, with elephant owners questioning the process used by the 'Tiger King' task force under the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, whose job includes cracking down on the hunting of wild animals.
A group of elephant owners, led by Mr Laithongrien Meepan of trekking camp Ayutthaya Elephant Palace, threatened to march from the provinces to Bangkok in early March to file a complaint with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. They had accused the task force of conducting substandard tests. This was after DNA from three of Mr Laithongrien's elephants did not match the ID issued by the Interior Ministry. The elephants have been impounded on false identification but he claimed the DNA checks were flawed.
Mr Roberts suggested that both microchipping and DNA sampling should be used to complement each another in identifying captive elephants and ensuring they did not come from the wild. "At least with DNA, an accused party ought to be able to insist on re-checks. To make it work smoothly, Thailand must increase its capacity to handle and check DNA samples," he said.
Thailand has 3,444 captive elephants that can be expensive to support. Mr Roberts' foundation has raised US$1.4 million (S$1.96 million) to date from the 16-year elephant polo charity event to fund elephant-related undertakings. He said the foundation spends US$18,000 a year to support a single elephant's welfare and its mahout's livelihood.
Because of the cost, some elephant owners tend to look for cheaper ways to keep the animals employed but "the first things cut are elephant and mahout welfare", said Mr Roberts. And that often leads to conditions that overwork the animals and do not sustain the livelihood of their owners.