The demise of the Thai elephant
In Thailand, only 100 years ago, there were more than 100,000 elephants. Today, less than 4,000 remain and most of these have been domesticated. They work either in elephant camps carrying tourists on elephant treks or in the cities with their mahouts (trainers/owners) illegally begging for money. The elephant is the national emblem of Thailand so the fact that these animals are facing extinction is a tragedy for the country.
Throughout Thai history, the Asian elephant was instrumental in helping build and defend the country. While Western countries used horses to carry knights into battle, the Thais used elephants. Imagine the fear of an enemy as one of these enormous animals lumbered down upon them, carrying at least two Thai fierce warriors who would dispatch their poor victim quickly and then move on to the next enemy soldier.
After the wars ended, the Thai elephant was used to build towns, villages, roads and bridges. They were the ‘trucks and bulldozers’ of their day, helping fell, drag and carry trees in the massive teak forests that used to cover much of Thailand. Their ability to climb steep mountain paths carrying lumber and to carry heavy loads meant Thais could use wood from mountainous land that other countries couldn’t access.
The Thai elephant in modern day Thailand
Into the modern day, Thai logging companies used elephants in their teak industry supplying wood to the rest of the world. But, as the teak forests were depleted and the land became arid and spoiled, Thailand had problems with major flooding caused by over stripping the land of its trees.
Eventually, the Thai government was forced to ban teak logging except in very small, protected areas. This was good for the environment but devastating for the Thai elephant. More than 4,000 elephants were suddenly ‘unemployed’ and their mahouts and their families almost destitute as their source of income dried up.
Some of the mahouts resorted to drugging their elephants so they could work harder begging for money from tourists or worked illegally logging near the Burmese border. Some of them died from drug overdoses, others died from stepping on the landmines that are found all over the Thai-Burmese border.
Others Thai elephants still were maimed for life as legs were blown apart, feet blown off, and shrapnel became embedded in flesh. Imagine an elephant that weighs between 3 and 5 tons being able to stand on 3 legs. It’s just not possible. The animal is forced to stand with its trunk taking the weight that the 4th leg used to take. Many die because their bodies simply cannot support that huge weight on three legs for long.
Some of the Thai elephant charities have even tried to create prosthetic legs for the injured animals but, so far, have had little success. The elephant is just too heavy for a prosthetic leg to take that weight without breaking it or further injuring the elephant.
This is the plight of the Thai elephant. Add onto that, the poachers who roam the national parks looking for wild elephants so they can kill them for the ivory from their tusks and it’s a wonder at all that Thailand has any elephants left.
Thai elephants in the tourist industry
The saving grace for some of the elephants that have survived, and also for their mahouts, has been the tourist industry in Thailand. Thai elephants are now used in Elephant Camps and National Parks.
Here tourists pay to go on an hour’s ride, or sometimes a 3 day trek of the jungle. They buy the products made from elephant dung, which help support the camps and thus the elephants. They watch the entertainment shows the camps have created where elephants show their logging skills, paint pictures, or do small tricks with their mahouts.
Some Westerners think this is demeaning for the elephant. But, I ask you this, if you had a choice between being in a place where you’re fed, watered, taken care of and generally treated well, or being dragged through the polluted streets of Bangkok in the terrible traffic, where elephant injuries, disease and death are common, so you can beg for food, what would you choose?
Thai elephant conservation
So remember, the next time you come to Thailand. Please support the Thai elephant by spending a little time at an Elephant Camp or nature reserve.
Visit the Elephant Hospital in Lampang, the first one of its kind, where sick and injured elephants are taken care of by truly caring people.
Go on an elephant trek and buy handmade elephant dung cards, books and paper while you’re there.
Work for a week at one of the organizations. You have to pay to work, but you’ll learn how to take care of an elephant, feed and water it, exercise it, give it medication as well as learn about the Thai traditional way of life and the problems Thailand now faces in a rapidly developing economy. An experience you could never otherwise get.
If you cannot visit Thailand, please consider donating to one of the Thai charities that take care of these amazing animals. The Elephant Nature Park is one of the most well-known elephant charities in Thailand. It has been featured on the National Geographic Channel and does amazing work for Thai elephants.
You can find out more information at http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/. Or look at Lampang’s Elephant Hospital, run by one of Thailand’s foremost elephant conservationists, Soraida Salwala – http://www.elephants-soraida.com/.
When I was still teaching in Bangkok, me and another teacher decided we needed to do something to aid the work of those fighting the extinction of the Thai elephant. So we organized the first sponsored walk that most of our Thai students had ever participated in.
We mapped out a short course around school, the students asked parents and friends to sponsor them, then we spent one class period holding the walk. Students from our youngest, age 6 years old, to our oldest, age 15, took part in the walk. With only 120 students, most of whom had never participated in a sponsored event before, we still raised almost $900 for the Elephant Nature Park.. You too could organize something similar at your school or in your neighborhood.
I encourage you to think what you too can do to help these phenomenal animals, because it would be a shame to wake up one day to the Thai elephant being little more than a memory.
This animal has served its country and people well and it’s now about time that Thai people and others who care, do their part to serve the elephant.