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Giving elephants good memories

Boon Seuhm, a 68 year-old elephant, at the Elephantstay in Thailand.

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KAI RYSSDAL: Tomorrow's going to be a big day in Thailand. Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is expected to return to Bangkok from exile. He was ousted in a coup two years ago, amid accusations of corruption.

Out in the Thai jungles, a business tycoon is trying to bring back domesticated elephants. For generations they were used to haul timber, but they were left essentially unemployed when Thailand banned logging twenty years ago.

Jocelyn Ford reports on how to make elephants relevant in a modern-day economy.


JOCELYN FORD: Loong Sup is 70, semi-retired and has a lot of patience. Today, she is waiting for American tourist Lawrence Goodrich to figure out how to give commands in the Thai language, while sitting on her neck.

MICHELLE REEDY: Tap her on the head and say "jem."

LAWRENCE GOODRICH: Say what? Jem? What does that mean?

It means remember, remember me, but Lawrence can't remember the most important command.

LAWRENCE GOODRICH: How do you say "stop?"

Loong Sup is part of an elephant lover's experiment to create a cradle-to-grave social security system for the endangered species. The old elephants help pay for their keep by attracting tourists to the 12 acre eco-attraction called "Elephantstay." The tourists pay $100 to stay overnight and feed, bathe and develop a personal relationship with the retired elephants, and they get to play with rambunctious babies. The babies get a kick out of butting tourists with their heads.

TOURIST: Oh you're so cute.

But the effort, launched by Thai entrepreneur and philanthropist Laithongrien Meepan, is a costly one. Consider how much an elephant eats every day.

EWA NARKIEWICZ: Nearly 200 kilos, you know they just won't go on a diet.

Ewa Narkiewicz is one of the two Australians Meepan asked to launch the retired elephant program. In the old days domestic elephants could feed in the jungle, but there's not enough jungle left, so Meepan purchases pineapple and hay. With 90 elephant mouths, that adds up to $42,000 a month, and that's where our American tourists come in.

REEDY: Are you feeling stable up there?

LAWRENCE GOODRICH: Uh, a little bit.

Lawrence and his wife Darcy had done the tourist ride thing before. You know, when you sit in a box-chair perched on an elephant's back. Darcy says they wanted something more.

DARCY GOODRICH: I guess what I'm looking for here is a real personal experience, I guess, with the elephant this time.

The couple paid a total of $600 to spend three days and two nights at Elephantstay. They're among 400 tourists who've signed up since the program was launched one and a half years ago. Former Melbourne zookeeper Michelle Reedy says Meepan asked her to move to Thailand to help make his vision for the species a reality.

REEDY: His vision is to make the elephants self-sustaining. He's been trying to do that with making work for different elephants, like, you know, the tourist rides in town, training elephants for movies.

But Meepan has yet to work out the economics. He currently subsidizes the elephant village with about $200,000 a year from his other businesses. Darcy is eager to do her bit to save the species, and plans to recommend Elephantstay to her friends back in Washington D.C., but she has a disclaimer.

DARCY GOODRICH: The other part of, or not so glamorous part of taking care of an elephant is cleaning up after them, 350 pounds of food a day and 50 gallons of water, and that goes through the elephant and out, so that's a lot of cleanup. That's the poop of the scoop.

In Ayutthaya, Thailand, I'm Jocelyn Ford for Marketplace.

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