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Tuesday, 25 April, 2000, 16:24 GMT 17:24 UK
Lives of neglect and misery
National symbols, but elephants often suffer neglect
By Geraldine Carroll in Bangkok

The killing of a British tourist is the latest in a string of controversial incidents surrounding elephants, which are revered in Thailand as a national symbol but often live a life of neglect and misery.

Andrea Taylor, 23, was gored to death by an outraged bull elephant at a wildlife park east of Bangkok. Her father and sister also suffered serious injuries.

The tragedy raises serious questions about the security of the millions of tourists who flock to Thailand every year, many attracted by coming face to face with elephants and other exotic beasts.

The rampage came only weeks after another bull elephant slipped his handler and went beserk on the streets of Bangkok.

Elephants evicted

No-one was injured, but nervous city authorities, mindful of the damage a deranged elephant can do, decided to evict all elephants from the city, where they are a popular tourist attraction.

The sight of tourists feeding elephants bananas was a familiar site every evening in the capital.

Many even walked under the bellies of the animals, following a tradition which is supposed to bring good luck.

Animal rights campaigners say that once an elephant loses control it is impossible to stop, as handlers who tried and failed to save the British tourist as she was gored by the outraged bull found out.

And they say the recent spate of incidents reflects a trend which has seen the natural habitats of elephants eroded, forcing their handlers to bring them into contact with tourists to earn a living.

Elephant handlers protest against their imminent eviction

Changing roles

Elephants have historically been used in farming and logging in the Thai forests but have seen their age-old role replaced by modern technology.

The condition of some elephants in the tourist trade suggests many live a hard and miserable life.

Forced to walk the streets in search of tourist dollars the beasts are often sick, and in poor condition.

Several elephants have been injured in traffic accidents recently, and in one high profile case an elephant lost part of a leg when it stepped on a landmine on the Thai-Burmese border.

Pang Motola, injured after stepping on a land mine

Questions will now be asked over security measures at the wildlife park, and an investigation is likely focus on why tourists were so close to the elephants.

The park was reportedly the scene of another near-tragedy earlier this year, when a Russian tourist was attacked by a puma.

Authorities are extremely sensitive to any incidents which could further damage the image of the tourism trade, which has brought millions of vistors to a country styled as a "land of smiles" in a massive advertising campaign dubbed "Amazing Thailand".

The country badly needs the foreign currency spent by Asian and Western tourists, and the leisure industry has been one of the few sectors of the economy to function well since the regional financial crisis brought the country to its knees in 1997.

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See also:

14 Feb 00 | Africa
Elephants kill endangered rhino
21 Oct 99 | South Asia
Drunken elephants trample village
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