Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Thai Elephant --Symbol of Nation

Elephants have been revered in Thailand for many centuries. Famous as the strongest beasts of burden, in Thailand they were important in battle, with kings mounted on Elephants fighting the Burmese to defend Thailand on many occasions. They have also been noted for their intelligence, memory and pleasant nature. A Thai legend has it that a marriage is like an elephant-- the husband is the front legs, that choose the direction, the wife the back legs, providing the power !
A white elephant is even included in the flag of the Royal Thai navy, and the "order of the white elephant" is one of the highest honours, bestowed by the king. White elephants, in fact, are very rarely completely white. The skin has to be very pale in certain areas to qualify as a "white elephant"
In the past, wild elephants were caught and trained. The city of Mae Hong Sorn was founded as a stockade for newly caught elephants, since that region had a high elephant population. This century, the number of elephants has declined so rapidly that the entire domesticated stock are one or more generations from their wild forebears. There are still a few thousand wild elephant in northern Thailand, in remote jungle south west of Chiangmai.
The Forestry Department uses trained elephants to extract illegal stores of teak logs, which poachers keep in remote areas where the use of vehicles would be impossible. Most elephants nowadays, however, are used to carry tourists around -- probably easier and more pleasant work than dragging heavy logs !
There are two main species of elephant in the world. The African Elephant -- Loxodonta, which is larger with bigger ears and a less docile nature. The ears help the animal to lose heat on the sunny open country it inhabits in Africa. The Indian elephant -- Elephas, is a native of thick forest, so is smaller, with much smaller ears. There have also been reports of pygmy elephants in South East Asia, only 1.5 metres tall, but these are probably extinct. The Indian elephant is 3 metres from the ground to the highest point of the shoulders (males 50 cm bigger). They weigh about four tons, and need 250 kgs of food a day, and 60 gallons of water.They are vegetarians, eating a wide variety of plants. In Thailand, their favourite food is tamarind, but as anyone who has been to an elephant camp knows, they seem to love bananas and sugar cane. Both sexes have tusks, although they are far larger in the male. Some males do not grow tusks, and are supposed to be better workers.
The trunk is a highly sensitive organ -- capable of very delicate manipulations. I saw an elephant with an itchy leg pull down the branch of a tree to scratch itself. This did not quite do the trick, so it put one end of the branch in its mouth and chewed it a little, then tried again, with better results. This was a clear example of tool making and using -- which used to be a definition of 'human'.

Elephant Society

In the wild, elephants stay together in herds of 5 to 20 individuals. There is always a leader, the strongest male. When threatened, the males, normally docile, will charge their foes. When families give birth, after a gestation period of 22-24 months, she goes to a grassy, comfortable spot with a 'friend', who acts as midwife. This friend clears up the afterbirth and placenta, and keeps mother and baby apart. There are cases of mothers, confused and exhausted, killing their new- born, if there is no friend to stop it. There is nothing sadder than a mother elephant who gives birth to a still born baby. She will stay with the dead body for several days, grieving. The life expectancy of elephants is in the 70's, and many over 100 years have been reported. The usual cause of death in the wild is the teeth, which were out, and the elephant dies of slow starvation.
Elephants only sleep for three or four hours a day, usually from 11pm to 3am. They simply lie down, yawning and later snoring just like humans. Only sick elephants sleep standing up.


Elephant calves begin their training when they are about four years old. They quickly learn and obey the words of command. They get to know their driver (mahout), and get used to being mounted and dismounted. For the first month they are kept restrained in a wooden 'crush' while they learn the basics.
Later, they learn more complex instructions needed to work with teak logs, including kneeling, picking things up, dragging, rolling, pushing, carrying etc. By the age of ten, they are ready for 'graduation', and the work of an adult. A working elephant can lift 700kg, and haul two tons of wood one kilometre without a break. Their natural walking speed is about 4km per hour. They reach their physical peak at 25 years old, and work until they are 60 years old, then they are retried and set free.

Where to See and Ride Elephants

There are several sites which have daily elephant shows. The closest is at Mae Sa, only 20 kms from Chiangmai. Further afield is Chiang Dao elephant camp, another 30 kms north. 80kms south of Chiangmai, on the road to Lampang, is the 'Thai Elephant conservation Centre'. Under Royal patronage, opened by Queen Sirikit, a large area of replanted teak forest is worked by donated elephants. The idea is to prove by doing it that elephants make more sense than vehicles -- they do not damage the surrounding forest so much, they do not require petrol, and damage the soil far less than vehicles. There is even a plan to manufacture teak furniture on site in a few years. There is an excellent show tree times a day. At all the camps, after the show those interested can enjoy a ride of various duration's through pretty scenery. There are also several smaller elephant camps, some with shows.
Most elephants in the north are owned by people of the Karen hill tribe -- in fact many of the mahouts wear the traditional red shirts of Karen men.
I once fell off an elephant. Fortunately a very rare event. The beast did not have his usual mahout, and it was very hot. The elephant simply kneeled down, and I and my companion simple slid off. no-one was hurt, but it was quite a shock -- its a long way down!

No comments:

Post a Comment