A two part photo essay on elephants and their owners who were forced in the 1990s to move to Bangkok to beg for donations and food from Thais to survive. The project was photographed from 1996 to 1999, working with a group mahouts I met living in an encampment off Phetchaburi Road. Thailand banned so-call urban elephants a few years after I worked on this project, published in several european publications and a Japanese magazine.
The second part of the project took me up north to Lampang Province where an elephant sanctuary was built for unemployed elephants as well as those injured in road accidents.
“These animals are the symbol of our country. They have worked for centuries for the Thai people in war and in peace and now we are abandoning our friends in these so-called modern times”, says Soraida Salwala, founder of Friends of the Asian Elephant, a non-profit organization that has established the world’s only elephant hospital in the Northern Thai province of Lampang. Soraida's missionary zeal might be all that saves the gentle giants. In the past 50 years Thailand’s wild elephant population has declined from 40,000 to 2,000 and the domesticated population has dropped from 11,000 to 3,000. As forests have been cut down the elephants’ natural habitats have all but vanished. In the age of the car, the elephant is seen as old fashioned and unnecessary.
Probably the biggest blow to the elephant, though, came in 1989. That year the government banned logging in an effort to protect the country’s few remaining forests. Ironically, the decision threw thousands of elephants out of work. Used in logging camps for centuries, they suddenly found themselves, quite literally, thrown out on the streets. Overnight thousands of elephants and their mahouts headed for cities in search of work. Some were lucky and found jobs in tourist camps. But in Bangkok and other cities many elephants have to walk the streets begging to survive. Thais consider elephants lucky so many mahouts can raise donations to support themselves and their oversized companions but life in the cities was taking a tragic toll.