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With logging ended, some of Thailand's captive elephants now have new jobs pleasing tourists

A SERPENTINE trunk snakes around a wooden post, quietly snatching a banana from a vending booth."AH! AH-H-H-H-H-H!" scolds a Thai vendor from behind the table as the thief ambles away, the yellow snack vanishing between her lips. After observing the "offense," I ask Dang Anuntawong, chief mahout (elephant keeper and driver) at the Tang-Dao Elephants Training Center, if elephants are intelligent. They're probably the smartest animal, he replies in a soft-spoken voice that brims with respect. "They can learn anything from people in the training. They can kick ball, and pick things up." And they're sensitive, he adds intently. "Last year one baby died because of a snake bite. The mother cried two or three days." Our interpreter is Sumonchart Yaviraj, who manages the camp with his brother. Ideally, he says, each of the center's 22 Asian elephants are paired with only one mahout, often for a lifetime. "It's just like a mate or a friend," he says. The elephant and mahout may stay together for 50 years; the mahout may even visit the elephant after it's retired, he explains. "If we change the mahout, the elephant doesn't trust the new mahout, doesn't want to train," he says. "It just wanders around; it doesn't want to eat." In the 1960s, the Tourist Authority of Thailand began to encourage elephant shows, and Tang-Dao became one of numerous private tourist attractions springing up to offer elephant jungle rides and performances. The Mae Sa Elephant Camp, one of two elephant camps near Chiang Mai, opened its show ring 20 years ago. "For the first three years, we lost money and almost gave up," says Mrs. Chuchart Praphaiphan, who started the camp with her husband. Now, she says, it's the largest private elephant camp in Thailand. The 34 elephants and a large staff perform for 200 tourists a day during the peak season, she says. Elephant shows cost about 40 baht ($1.50); rides cost 100-300 baht ($4-$12). Approximately 3,500 of Thailand's 5,000 elephants are captive. The remainder are wild, explains Eric Dinerstein, a conservation scientist at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Washington, D.C. WWF estimates there are between 40,000-60,000 Asian elephants in the world, compared with 600,000 African elephants. "We know that in the course of a century, populations have really crashed around Asia" due mainly to habitat loss and some poaching, he says. And repopulation is not taking place. "One of the things of concern in some figures I've seen is if the reproductive rates of elephants in captivity in Asia continue at the current pace, there will be no elephants left in captivity by about the year 2030 because they're not breeding fast enough to replace [them]," Mr. Dinerstein says. But elephant centers like Tang-Dao are reluctant to breed their elephants because it puts the females out of work for many years. Male elephants are considered a liability to own because poachers shoot them for their tusks, says Sumonchart. So his family buys baby elephants from a breeder in Nan Province, he says. But some conservationists say that baby elephants are also being captured from the wild for tourism, further depleting wild elephant populations (see story at right). "Captive breeding of elephants is a slow, difficult, and expensive process," explains Ronald Orenstein, a wildlife conservationist and editor of the book "Elephants: The Deciding Decade.It's probably a lot cheaper to catch the elephant rather than to raise one..., [and so] the general source of elephants is wild ones." Sumonchart's now-retired father, Manas Yaviraj, started the Tang-Dao center as a business venture 24 years ago. It's the oldest private elephant camp in Thailand, says Sumonchart. Located near the town of Chiang Dao - decidedly not a tourist town with a lone, bleak hotel - the center draws most of its visitors from tours venturing north from Chiang Mai, about 35 miles away. Showtime includes herculean weight-lifting and log-rolling performances (mature elephants can lift about half a ton), hat fetching, and routines where these gigantic gray beasts step gingerly over recumbent mahouts. The training techniques used at Tang-Dao are modeled after a government elephant training center, says Sumonchart. The Young Elephant Training Centre in Lampang, which is connected with the Thai Forest Industry Organization, was established as the first center in Thailand to train young elephants (from age 3-10) for forest work. Asian elephants have been used for clearing jungle because of their bulldozer-like strength and ability to go into otherwise inaccessible terrain. Although Thai elephants are still used for logging in Burma and Laos, a 1989 logging ban - enacted because of excessive deforestation - has reduced the demand for working elephants in Thailand, says Dr. Pricha Phuang Kham, director of the center. The government center in Lampang has been forced to reassess its purpose - and go into show business. The old center will continue to train baby elephants "to be with a human, to be a good elephant," explains Dr. Pricha. A second center, scheduled to open next month at a location closer to tourists, will include shows, a resort, a museum, and an education center to inform visitors about declining elephant populations. As home to 105 elephants, the Young Elephant Training Centre can help to maintain elephant populations through reproduction as well, Dr. Pricha says. "We have two or three elephants [born] every year.... It is our duty, because we own a lot of elephants."