SAN FRANCISCO -- In Asia, there's an ongoing irony that deepens as the natural world dwindles to the size of a parking lot. Wild animals, once revered and assigned all kinds of spiritual meaning, are increasingly ending up as the main entree.
The tiger, for instance, that fierce and terror-inducing king of the jungle, is no longer feared so much as coveted: as a rug, as jewelry made of fangs, as a quixotic dish, or as medicinal products made from its various parts - bones and penis and gall bladder - thought to improve man's sexual prowess.
But nowhere is the irony as deep as it is in Thailand, where the regal elephant is now being served up alongside the tiger: on a fanciful diner's plate.
According to a recent Associated Press article, a new taste for elephant meat has sprung up in mega-modern Thailand.
Traditional poaching for male elephant tusks has evolved, with a growing taste for their meat driving hunters to begin targeting female and baby elephants as well. Not exactly a traditional Thai delicacy, the emergence of an army of nouveaux riches across East Asia has fueled ever-more garish culinary trends.
Elephant sashimi, now apparently all the rage, is part of a mindset at once boastful and shallow - if it's the last elephant, then I will show my friends that I can afford it.
So here's the irony: The Asian elephant is still a revered cultural icon in Thailand, gracing bas-reliefs of temples and ancient paintings of battle scenes, but it is fast disappearing. The country whose civilization was more or less built on the elephant's back is now turning its back on the animal.
Indeed, the elephant once served as both builder and war machine: carrying logs and rocks and uprooting trees to build palaces and temples, while fighting countless wars bedecked in the armor of a warrior.
Within Buddhism, Thailand’s state religion and a binding force across much of the region, the elephant remains sacred. According to legend, a white Elephant appeared in the dream of Queen Maya, holding a white lotus flower in its trunk. She later gave birth to the historical Gautama Buddha, Siddhārtha.
Alas, sacred is quickly cast off for cold hard cash. An elephant penis can now fetch as high as $1,000 and a pair of tusks as high as $63,000. Though illegal, poaching has now reached what environmentalists are calling a "crisis point."
At the beginning of last century there were more than 100,000 wild elephants in existence. One hundred years later the population has plummeted to less than 3,000.
Classified as an endangered species, the Asian elephant is expected to disappear from the wild altogether around 2050, if not sooner.
But while poaching is particularly abhorrent, there are other reasons behind the elephant’s disappearance, including deforestation.
For domesticated elephants in Thailand, deforestation means no more jobs. Logging in Thailand's forests has long relied on the strength of the powerful pachyderms. An elephant can pull half its weight and carry 600 kilos on its back. In hilly countryside where roads are small and inaccessible to trucks, an elephant is indispensable for the timber business. But logging is all but illegal now in Thailand, and the domesticated elephant, it seems, is out of luck.
An average elephant weighs 11,000 pounds, and consumes more than 26 gallons of water and 440 pounds of food a day. That's why their owners consciously curb breeding among the captive beasts, bringing down their number even farther.
Many owners, left with no other choice, have now turned their elephants into urban beggars. For the wild elephant conditions are even worse.
Only about 15 percent of the country is still forestland, and those patches are widely scattered. Many wild elephants resort to raiding farms for crops, where they are often shot or poisoned by subsistence farmers. In the story of miserable beast pitted against impoverished human it’s a no brainer who comes out on top… with fork in hand.
Man has conquered everything but himself. The wild is now what we call a reserve, the wilderness nowhere but within. In a world where even the sacred is devoured, one can't help but wonder what are the chances for other species on the endangered list.
NAM editor Andrew Lam is author of "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres," and "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora." His next book, "Birds of Paradise," is due out in 2013.
Image provided by http://www.shutterstock.com/
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