National Geographic : 2012 Oct
of Queen Maya the night she became pregnant with Siddhartha Gautama. e Elephant Monk believes he was an elephant in a past life and is well-known among mahouts. He tells me he has , followers around the world, though during my visit to his temple only a few show up. ey kneel before him with o erings and receive an amulet he has blessed. Many ais wear amulets, sometimes dozens, to bring them luck and protect them from harm and black magic. Bangkok's amulet market is huge, with countless vendors selling tens of thousands of small talismans made of materi- als such as metal, compressed dust, bone---and ivory. High-end amulets can fetch , or more. ere are magazines, trade shows, books, and websites devoted to amulet collecting. Am- ulets hang from the rearview mirror of almost every Thai cab. Ousted Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra credits his Buddhist amulet with saving him in assassination attempts, and the ai Army has distributed amulets to its border soldiers to ward o Cambodia's black magic. The Elephant Monk's main income is from amulets, and he o ers a strange variety, including images of himself and of the Buddha as well as amulets made with plastic-encased bits of bone from the skulls of dead pregnant women, pure corpse oil, soil from seven cemeteries, tiger fur, elephant skin, and carved ivory. Business is good enough that he's building a new temple, Wat Suanpah, modeled in part a er ailand's popu- lar tiger parks---o en front organizations, critics say, for the illegal tiger trade. The Elephant Monk su ered similar controversy when a re- cent television exposé reported that he'd starved an elephant to death for its skin and ivory, but he says it died of natural causes and he was only holding an elephant funeral. Besides, by shop- ping in Surin, he tells me, he can nd all the elephant ivory and skin he needs. Before the exposé, he took in about one million baht ( ,) a month from his gi shop, the Inter- net, and foreign travels. Now he's down to about , baht a month. But, he says, in just three days in Malaysia or Singapore he could sell his followers one million bahts' worth or more. ailand has a small, natural population of Asian elephants, an endangered species long o -limits to international trade. Inside ai- land, however, the rules are less rigid. Mahouts and others may sell the tusk tips of live domes- ticated elephants and the tusks of ones that died of natural causes. For years international ivory tra ckers have capitalized on this, smuggling in African ivory to mix with Asian ivory. Conservationists refer to this as the "Thai loophole." But there's a far bigger loophole en- joyed by every country in the world. African ivory brought into a country before may be traded domestically. And so anyone caught with ivory invokes a common refrain: "My ivory is pre-ban." Since no inventory was ever made of global ivory stocks before the ban, and since ivory lasts more or less forever, this "pre-ban" loophole is a timeless defense. Thailand's ivory market has been evolv- ing. "Ivory traders are stockpiling," says Steve Galster, director of the Freeland Foundation, a Bangkok-based nongovernmental organization (NGO). "Since has a history of relaxing trade bans, they feel it's a safe gamble." ailand, like the Philippines, has another commodity tra ckers value: corruption. A ton of seized African ivory disappeared recently from a ai customs warehouse. When I ask to see the rest, customs o cers refuse and suggest that journalists stole it. Only when I say I heard other- wise am I told the truth: Customs o cers are believed to have been the culprits. Corruption is IN ALMOST EVERY SHOP I VISITED IN MANILA SOMEONE PROPOSED A WAY I COULD SMUGGLE IVORY TO THE U.S.