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Big Trouble

After years of abuse and neglect, Thailand's elephants are approaching the point of no return

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Once the mighty elephant bestrode the Thai landscape and psyche like a colossus. It was deeply enmeshed in the fabric of daily life. Its image graced temples, palaces and the national flag. Today, due mainly to habitat loss and degradation, it is in decline throughout its range in Thailand and the rest of Asia, as well. Overall its wild population is down from hundreds of thousands to fewer than 45,000. In Thailand, only 1,350 Asian elephants still roam free, and another 3,800 domesticated animals there have fallen on hard times.

 For centuries, elephants captured in the wild and domesticated have served as Thailand's primary mode of transportation, penetrating teak forests, thundering across battlefields, performing ceremonial duties. Today these intelligent beasts of burden are begging for food in urban shopping centers and being worked to death by illegal loggers. The fragmented populations of wild elephants that are left have been boxed into several dozen scattered national parks, all of which are under attack by poachers, woodcutters and land-grabbers. Conservationists and the Thai government are taking measures to stabilize the situation. Only time can tell whether they will work. A Buddhist temple on the outskirts of Bangkok shelters an abandoned 10-year-old elephant named Ploy. "We took pity on him," says a young novice. "Elephants are our legacy."

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