ASIAN ELEPHANTS IN THAILAND: WORK, UNEMPLOYMENT, WELFARE AND LIFE IN THE CITIES

ASIAN ELEPHANTS IN THAILAND

Elephants are held in high regard in Thailand. The symbol and de facto national animal of Thailand, they were emblazoned on the national flag until 1917 and are still honored with Elephant Day on March 13. They are prominently displayed on royal seals and at temples and are widely featured in products ranging from beer to investment houses. In the old days they carried kings into battle and were essential to keeping the Thai economy growing. For centuries they were used to harvest teak and kill enemies in the battles and were one of the main sources of transportation. In 16th-century elephant cavalries carried the day in battles against arch rival Burma and today Thais say their country won its freedom on the backs of elephant. Rare "white" elephants (animals with prominent pink patches) are given to the Thai royal family as gifts and are kept in a special area at the royal palace.

A hundred years ago more than 100,000 wild and domesticated elephant were found in Thailand. Of the 4,000 to 5,000 that live there today, around 2,000 to 3,000 are wild animals that live in Thailand's national parks and 2,000 are domesticated working elephants. By some estimates there is not enough forest to provide enough food and habitat for the remaining wild elephants. Working elephants suffer from a lack of jobs.

Healthy elephants aged between 8 and 12 sell for about $6,500 a piece in Thailand. Many are sold or rented in package deal with their mahouts. Many mahouts in Thailand are Karen tribesmen. The Suay of northeastern Thailand were famous for their ability to catch wild elephants with little gear other than bamboo poles and ropes.

Elephants once provided the backbone for a large forestry industry. With development and deforestation, their numbers have dwindled. Registration allows the commercial use of elephants. Normally, only calves born to elephants already legally in captivity can be registered, though proof of birth to a domesticated elephant is not required.

Some Thais believe that crawling under the elephant’s stomach brings good luck. Pregnant women walk under the stomach to ensure a safe delivery. This custom is derived from the story of Buddha’s birth after his mother dreamt about a white elephant. To celebrate the birth of Princess Aiko of Japan, the government of Thailand give her two young elephants.

An Irish guy I meant got chased by a herd of elephants there after his mini-van surprised the elephants who like to sleep in the roads because they retain heat better than the jungle. He had to drive at break neck speeds in reverse to get away from them and then had to wait out the night in his van so that he wouldn't disturb the elephants who were blocking the only way out of the park.

Website on Thai elephants: www.elephant.se/main.htm

Asian Elephants Entertainment in Thailand

In mid November the Surin Elephant Roundup is held in northeastern Thailand. It is an internationally famous event in which over 100 elephants participate in mock elephant hunts, polo matches, mock elephant battles, tug-of-wars and demonstrations of log pulling skills. In the mock battle, warrior with spears advance on the backs of the elephants to the sound of drums while soldiers with and swords guards the animals legs. A parade of elephants outfitted for medieval warfare is also held. Over 40,000 people show up for the event at the Surin’s main stadium. Most of elephant mahouts are members of the Suay tribe, who live near the Thai-Cambodian border. There is also Thai dancing and other events.

In 1920s, hundreds of elephants were rounded up. Some were taken to work. Others were released. The released ones were promoted to chase a boy with an umbrella who was whisked away at the last minute..

Elephants have been used in fashion shows. One baby elephant was hired to greet Michael Jackson by “rock n’ rolling” to one of his songs. At tourist centers colored paper made from elephant dung is made into phot albums and bookmarks sold to tourists.

Some elephants make a living making music and producing works of art. At the government-sponsored Thai Elephant Conversation Center in Lampang, an elephant orchestra produces music with harmonicas, Thai bowed instruments, gongs made from circular saws confiscated by illegal logging operations, drums and Thai xylophones. Cassettes and CDs of their music sell relatively well.

The elephants hold the harmonicas with their trunks and blow in them with their mouths and bang the gongs, drums and xylophones with their mouths. Sometimes the music sounds like chaotic noise. Other times it can be quite melodic. The orchestra has been featured on pieces by CNN, the BBC, 60 Minutes, National Public Radio and television reports in Japan, Denmark, Germany and other countries.

Elephant Entertainers in Thailand

Douglas H. Chadwick wrote in National Geographic, At nine years old, Prathida has yet to experience a day of hard work. Another reason she's called a princess is that she's a budding beauty and seems to know it. To label her spoiled would be unfair, but no one would deny she is a little on the willful side---insistent, curious, with a lot of bounce in her gait, and very, very noisy. [Source: Douglas H. Chadwick, National Geographic, October 2005]

"She's the one you hear trumpeting on our CD," says Richard Lair, an FIO adviser to the center who's earned the informal title Acharn Chaang---Professor Elephant---during a lifetime spent studying them. Lair is talking about the center's recording of elephants playing along to Beethoven's Sixth Symphony with 50 school kids and a marching band, a rendition that makes up in enthusiasm for whatever notes go astray. Like many zoos and camps, the center encourages the elephants to paint, but, Lair says, sound and smell, rather than sight, are their most important senses. So he and Dave Soldier, a visiting neuroscientist from New York's Columbia University, started the world's first elephant orchestra, complete with jumbo-size drums, gongs, chimes, and a xylophone. "How large is this orchestra of yours?" a visitor asks. Lair has his reply ready to go: "Well, by weight, I'd guess three times the size of the Berlin Philharmonic." The straight answer is about 12 elephants.

"Once, while I was conducting," he continues, "we were coming to the part for the big gong, and a mahout forgot to hand his elephant the mallet. That elephant reached up and tapped him on the knee, as if to say, “Hey, heads up. I'm on!'" Singling out Prathida for praise, Lair adds, "She's perfect keeping up with the music. She'll trumpet to accompany a violin and chirp when she hears a cello."

Catching Wild Elephants in Thailand

In Thailand , according to Reuters, tamed elephants were used to lure and maneuver wild herds into funnel-shaped bamboo or teak stockades, known as kraals, during great elephant drives in Thailand's northern provinces and southern seaboard from at least the seventeenth century onwards. Torches and flares were set off behind the animals, to usher them into the kraal, and a gatekeeper high above dropped a heavy gate to lock the herd inside. Tame elephants were also used to lure wild individuals away from their herds in the country's northeast. [Source: Reuters December 23, 2007; Elephants of Thailand in Myth, Art and Reality by Rita Ringis, Oxford University Press, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals]

Reuters reported: “Once trapped, the youngest, easiest to train, elephants, were lassoed and tied to stakes, and unsuitable animals freed. - Pulled into tight, wooden "crush" enclosures, the elephants were tamed into obedience by a method called the "phaajaan", or breaking of the spirit, which is still used today. - Trapped barely able to move for days or even weeks in the crush cage and deprived of sleep, they are alternately starved or fed, until they accept chains or harnesses without a struggle and respond to rewards. [Ibid]

“In 2002, animal welfare group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), protested against the use of the phaajaan in Thailand. The group called for a boycott of the Thai tourism industry, which now employs the majority of trained elephants, because of the cruelty of this traditional method of elephant training. The government denies allegations of cruelty. [Ibid]

Working Elephants in Thailand

There are about 1,000 working elephants in Thailand compared to around 3,000 in the 1970s, when the teak industry was very much alive. Up until fairly recently elephants were important as sources of labor and transportation, particularly in the timber industry. They were used to drag logs in the forests and pull plows on farms. Today, however, technology have largely made them obsolete. Cars and trucks have replaced them as means of transportation. The ban on logging in Thailand ended that career. Tourism is often the only way they can make a living and there isn’t enough work there for all of the Thailand’s domesticated elephants.

Many elephant make their living today entertaining tourist at elephant training centers and begging in Bangkok (people spend a few baht to walk under elephant's stomachs which is considered good luck).

There are about 700 elephant camps scattered around Thailand. They either put on shows or take people on treks. Some of the elephant shows are more of the circus variety with elephant balancing on balls, playing soccer and riding bicycles, playing harmonicas and xylophones.

Douglas H. Chadwick wrote in National Geographic, “More elephants and their mahouts are finding work in tourist camps. In the seaside resort of Pattaya, visited by more than a million people annually, the number of camps has increased from three to nine in recent years, with one keeping nearly 80 animals on hand. All told, about half of Thailand's domestic elephants now spend their days giving rides to visitors in a howdah---a strapped-on bench seating two or three people---or performing in shows. The acts range from demonstrations of timber work to circus-like spectacles in which the animals dance, do handstands, pedal oversize tricycles, play soccer, and shoot basketballs. Whether you view the stunts as thrilling or degrading, they supply daily proof of an elephant's keen intelligence, coupled with a surprising degree of finesse. [Source: Douglas H. Chadwick, National Geographic, October 2005]

Career of a Working Elephant in Thailand

Douglas H. Chadwick wrote in National Geographic, Ten feet tall, four tons thick, and around 70 years old when we meet, Boon Num used to work for the Suay people of eastern Thailand, traditionally the country's foremost catchers and trainers of wild elephants. Getting fresh stock from the wild is considered more expedient than breeding elephants in captivity because pregnancy keeps a captive female out of work for 20 to 22 months. Boon Num's job was to chase free-roaming herds in Cambodia until one of the two mahouts on his back could lasso the quarry, usually a baby elephant, with a rope of braided water buffalo hide. Boon Num would then hold off the mother and other relatives trying to come to the tethered animal's aid. Afterward the captive would be placed in a "crush"---a tightly confining pen---and subjected to a will-breaking ceremony called phajaan, still practiced in places today. The taming process can be brutal, involving days of torment with spike-tipped poles until the elephant learns to move in response. [Source: Douglas H. Chadwick, National Geographic, October 2005]

Boo Num’s “life story can be traced through documents that must be filed after an elephant is taken from the wild and each time it is sold....After his career of capturing wild elephants, Boon Num abruptly found himself in another part of the country with a new owner, a new mahout, and a new job: logging. Though Thailand outlawed further cutting of its forests in 1989, clandestine logging continues in remote areas, particularly near the Myanmar border. Hauling timber required less speed but every bit of Boon Num's power---and it took a toll. Injuries from toppling trees, runaway logs, and falls on steep terrain are common. Once, Boon Num lost the end of his tail to a bite by a co-worker---a frequent occurrence among elephants thrown together in random groups. One rear foot also became torn and infected; no longer able to work, he was at risk of being rendered for parts like an old truck. Instead he changed hands again and wound up in Pattaya.

After Boon Num's leg healed (it took six months and three veterinarians), [his owner Phairat] Chaiyakaham says, "the mahouts did not want to get up on him because he can be moody. Then I got the right man." That's Gas Pasuk, 24, a Suay handler who sits atop Boon Num during shows and takes tourists for rides on him."Boon Num is quite gentle," Pasuk insists. "But he needs the sweet talk to soothe him.”

Tough Life of Elephants in the Tourism and Entertainment Industries in Thailand

Most of Thailand’s 1,000 working elephants are employed in the tourism industry. They perform in shows and carry tourists on treks to hill tribe villages, ancient ruins, waterfalls and rain forest. A popular trip in the Chiang Rai area includes an elephant trek in jungle-covered mountains combines with a raft trip down a river.

Reporting from Surin, Thailand, Gillian Murdoch of Reuters wrote: Sucking up sugarcane with their trunks and circling busy traffic roundabouts, the elephants that roam Thai towns at festival time seem as much at home in the city as in the forest. Shows that feature elephants painting pictures, playing polo and whirling hoola hoops on their trunks have become an economic lifeline for more than a thousand domesticated elephants, who lost their incomes when Thailand banned logging in 1989. [Source: Gillian Murdoch, Reuters, December 23, 2007]

But entertaining locals and tourists has become a life or death business for elephants and their keepers, explained Sam Fang, author of Thai Elephants: Tourism Ambassadors of Thailand. "They had to cope with the ban on logging, and deforestation," Fang said. "First jobless, second no food. Wham!" Tourism filled the gaps, he said. "The better elephants got themselves a job as taxis. The intelligent elephants got themselves jobs as show elephants. The smarter ones became artists," he said jokingly.

Elephant conservationists such as Sangduen "Lek" Chailert worry that captive elephants, considered beasts of burden in Thailand, have little protection from abuse if their owners work them all day to bring in more tourist dollars. "Elephants used to be transport for the king, they were very important in history. Today they've just become subservient," said Chailert. "They turned from a holy animal to work like slaves all day. And at night they're chained," she said. "They've made elephants into machines for making money."

Simple as it sounds, the first step towards improving the lot of Asia's captive elephants is ascertaining where they are, said elephant expert Richard Lair. Lair has proposed micro-chipping domestic elephants to prevent abuse through better monitoring, and reduce horse-trading among owners. "The reason we don't know about deaths, births, illegal trade is because the registration process is so inefficient. And the wild are not even counted," said Lair, the Director of the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Chiang Mai.

"A compromise will have to be hammered out," he said. In the meantime, working elephants just have to hope the tourists keep coming, he said. "The worst case scenario is that the global economy goes into a recession, tourist numbers plummet and, a large number have no gainful employment."

Poorly Treated Elephants in Thailand

Some elephant have shot or poisoned by farmers to stop them from eating their crops. Gangs of poachers slaughter mothers to catch babies which are sold to elephant shows. Males are killed for the ivory from their tusks.

An estimated 1,000 elephants are used in illegal logging, mostly in Cambodia and Myanmar near the Thai border. In Salween National Park elephants drag massive logs down slick slopes and drag them down rock streambeds to logging roads where the logs are handed over to loggers with tractors.

Elephants used in illegal logging have been fed amphetamines to make them work harder and faster. Some elephants have suffered serious liver damages from taking to many of these drugs. They sometimes work when they are injured or suffer from internal bleeding. Many come diseases. When the can no longer work they are often abandoned and left to die.

Describing a rescued blind elephant kept at a rehabilitation sanctuary Douglas H. Chadwick wrote in National Geographic, Jokia had been employed in an illegal timber-cutting operation. Forced to keep dragging logs while pregnant, she struggled up steep slopes pulling heavy loads and suffered a miscarriage. Jokia went on strike. Her handler, or mahout, took to shooting her with a slingshot to get her up and moving, a practice mahouts call "using the remote." He missed his mark one day, blinding her left eye. Jokia's funk deepened. When the man who owned her came by to deal with the situation, she broke his arm with a swing of her trunk. In revenge he shot her remaining eye with an arrow, then put her back to work in chains, hauling freshly felled teak in darkness. [Source: Douglas H. Chadwick, National Geographic, October 2005]

Urban Elephants in Thailand

About 300 domesticated elephants live on the streets of Thai cities, with about 100 of them becoming semi-permanent residents of Bangkok. Most have been brought to te city in search of food and work. Many have been rendered unemployed by the ban on logging. Large numbers of domesticated elephants are also found in Chiang Mai., Pattaya and a few other Thai cities and resorts. A group of 100 or so elephants and their mahouts in Ayuthaya Province attended an outdoor screening of the animated movie Kan Kluay, about a young Thai wild elephant who loses his father and while looking for him because a war elephant for the Thai king, Elephants wander through an abandoned development in Bang Bua Thong, where they like to rub up against the walls and cover themselves with concrete dust.

Urban elephants have been injured by falling into ditches and open manholes, teased in a rage and sickened by mercury poisoning from car fumes. Bangkok residents complain the elephants dirty their city with their dung and present a serious danger. Once an elephant escaped from its handler and ran amok on one of Bangkok’s busiest streets. It had to be brought down with a dart from a tranquilizer gun.

Elephants have been banned from the streets of Bangkok and barred from begging. Police have driven elephants out of the city. Mahouts face 100,000-baht fines and four year jail sentences. They have protested their treatment Most mahouts are not too worried about imprisonment because how is the government going to take care of the elephants while they are in prison. One mahout told Time, “They’ve arrested me 10 times already this year. They won’t take her. They don’t want her. What are they going to do with an elephant?”

Begging Elephants in Thailand

Many of Thailand’s elephants are put to work begging for handouts and money from tourists. In most cases the mahout sells bananas, cucumbers and sugarcane for about 50 cents to tourists who feed them to the elephants. Some Thais pay to crawl under the elephants stomach for good luck. Pregnant women walk under the stomach to ensure a safe delivery.

Mahouts claim they have no other choice. They take to their elephants to business districts around Solom Street, the sex district in Patpong and the shopping malls in Future Park. Elephants often pose fo pictures with middle aged men and their bar girlfriends amidst traffic and pollution. A typical begging elephants walks 20 kilometers a day, stopping at hotels, tourist attraction and bars in search of paying customers and earn about $30, of which more than $20 is necessary to feel the elephant.

Douglas H. Chadwick wrote in National Geographic, Many Thai mahouts are not the elephants' owners but simply men who hire on with tourist camps or rent the animals to panhandle on the streets, drawn by what looks like easy money. Panhandling has become so lucrative in tourist centers like Bangkok and Pattaya that the entrepreneurs who rent out the animals are sometimes referred to as "elephant lords." These keepers have no emotional ties to the elephants and little experience in how to care for or control them. [Source: Douglas H. Chadwick, National Geographic, October 2005]

Daily Life of Thailand’s Begging Elephants

Douglas H. Chadwick wrote in National Geographic, “In the city of Khon Kaen, rising from the plains of the northeastern Thai region of Isaan, I visit a 40-year-old street elephant called Bom and her three-year-old offspring, a big, pushy boy named Minimax. They've been rented out by their owner to two mahouts and three assistants. Although mother and son look to be in fair condition, I notice raw scars on Minimax's forehead and holes in his ears---wounds caused by an ankus, the baton with a hooked metal tip used to enforce commands. [Source: Douglas H. Chadwick, National Geographic, October 2005]

“Working the streets is a simple racket: The elephants march along under their mahouts' guidance, extending trunks toward passersby, occasionally adding a curtsy or head waggle while assistants fan out, hawking overpriced bananas or sugarcane to feed the giants. Onlookers pay out of kindness and amusement, and also because of ancient traditions that link elephants to fertile rains and prosperity. Thais still walk under an elephant's belly three times for luck, or to ensure an easy birth. [Ibid]

“The midday temperature is sweltering, too hot for the crew to begin working the streets yet, so we linger where the men have strung a tarp over some weeds in a vacant lot. Plastic bags holding rice, chilies, and fruit dangle from branches. The tarp, a fire pit, and a small shrine fashioned from scraps of corrugated metal will be their home for the next month. Bom and Minimax are tethered with a long chain to keep them from wandering while the men doze; they've been up all night watching the elephants forage, making sure they didn't tear into the tasty trees of nearby yards. A ringing sound awakens the sleepers. "Yes, OK," I hear a groggy mahout say, answering his cell phone. "I can take Bom to do a wedding if you get the truck here the night before." [Ibid]

After the men bathe the elephants, we set out to shake some coins loose from the neighborhood. "Zu gluay liang chaang, bor krub!---Please buy bananas for the elephant!" the mahouts cry. "Just one bunch for the little one!" The men duck into shops and restaurants, waving bananas through wrought iron gates at people in courtyards. Minimax pokes his trunk in as well, bobbing his head up and down and squeaking encouragement at potential buyers as he's been taught to do. But few people are about, andafter two hours and five miles, the men have sold just three bunches of bananas for a total of 60 baht---less than $1.50. [Ibid]

“The money was better in Bangkok, where Bom and Minimax could make up to a hundred dollars a night. But the government has begun cracking down on street elephants in cities, and this crew was run out of the capital. The behemoths slow down already jammed traffic and compete with streetside stores for people's pocket money. Forced to walk long distances to reach city centers each day, the elephants get sick from breathing exhaust fumes, drinking polluted water, and having to snatch meals from trash-filled ditches. They also break legs clambering over concrete abutments and get smacked by automobiles. Though enforcement of the ban was casual at first, pressure from the public and Thai organizations demanding more humane treatment of elephants forced city after city to follow through on the rules. [Ibid]

“Still, the elephants have to earn their keep somewhere. Many have simply been diverted to suburban areas, where they bide their time before filtering back into the cities. Bom and Minimax are working in Khon Kaen only because local police look the other way as long as they keep to the fringes of town. As dusk descends, the two elephants plod ahead on the paved road, oblivious to speeding motorbikes, barking dogs, and tag-a-long knots of shrieking kids. One resident gives money to have Bom suck up a trunkful of water and spray it through his doorway as a blessing upon the house. One of the mahouts ties a flashing red light to her long tail and reflective tape to Mini-max's so the animals are visible to cars passing in the darkness. Vendors begin opening their streetside stalls. Several give Minimax melons and squash from their own wares. Parents buy bananas and pass them to toddlers to hold while colossal Bom, watched by some of the widest eyes ever to appear on a child's face, plucks the treats carefully from their hands. [Ibid]

“Business is picking up, but it looks as if the day's net will be under $20. Between a third and a half of that will go to the elephants' owner. The rest will be split five ways, with enough kept out to buy fresh bananas for the next day. It's a competitive situation: In Khon Kaen, a city of 150,000, there are a dozen other elephant crews trying to eke out a living the same way.

Unemployed Elephants in Thailand

There are 3,800 domesticated elephants in Thailand Most of them used to harvest teak Now many are unemployed. With the decline of the logging industry and a logging ban in 1989, unemployed elephants have turned to tourism to make a living.

Douglas H. Chadwick wrote in National Geographic, “Logging and agriculture have robbed wild elephants of as much as three-quarters of the country's forest and put domestic elephants on the unemployment line, since most worked in the timber industry. And tame elephants, unlike their wild counterparts, are not covered under Thailand's Conservation Act of 1992; instead, they're classified as a type of livestock, like oxen or water buffalo. That means owners stuck with animals that can no longer produce income but still need as much as 500 pounds of forage and 60 gallons of water daily are free to sell them to be slaughtered for their meat or, in the case of bulls, for their ivory tusks. [Source: Douglas H. Chadwick, National Geographic, October 2005]

“But while training mahouts to take better care of their charges is an essential first step in improving conditions for Thailand's working elephants, it doesn't solve the animals' current unemployment problem. Government officials talk up plans to use trained elephants and their riders to shepherd wild ones back into natural habitats when they come into conflict with farmers, and to hire street mahouts and their mounts to guard the country's parks and forest reserves against poaching. But only a handful of programs have made it past the discussion stage. One that attempted to recruit 200 elephants and mahouts who had been panhandling in urban centers to patrol parks fell far short of the mark. A hundred mahouts signed up---but 80 soon dropped out. The men were unable to adapt to daily life in the forest, complaining of rough paths and low pay. For now, mahouts and their elephants are more likely to seek work entertaining tourists. There are also proposals for one day reintroducing tame elephants into the wild. [Ibid]

Unhealthy Elephants in Thailand

The problem is so dire that a hospital, the Thai elephant Conservation Center, has been set in Labrang ti treat poorly treated and unhealthy elephants. Among those brought in were an elephant with an amphetamine addiction and one that had been reduced to a skeleton through overwork and lack of food. Evensoes at the hospital are high and most of the money comes from private donations.

Many of the patients have been maltreated by illegal loggers, who pieced the with spears gash them with swords and feed them amphetamine-spiked banana to keep them working in Cambodia and Myanmar. Some have also been poorly treated by fly-by-night trekking operations and elephant shows.

In 1995, there was great uproar over the case of a 20-year-old elephant named Diamond who was shackled to a tree in two meter flood waters. The animal had been chained to the tree near a Buddhist temple during nearly all of his life to raise funds from visitors. Ignoring pleas from animal lovers, the head monk at the temple reused to listen the animal's restraints which gouges deep wounds in its legs. later the animals was freed after a cabinet official donated $4,000 to buy the animal. Diamond was then taken to a zoo were its was treated and taught walk. later the elephant was released in a national park. [Source: Time]

In Thailand, domesticated elephants have been reintroduced to the wild after two years of preparation. The elephants are outfit with radio collars. so their progress cab be monitored.

Elephant Heath Care in Thailand

The elephant hospital in Lampang treats everything from snake bites to broken bones. It also operates a mobile clinic that treats 500 elephants a year and runs a school that treats traditional methods of elephant training. King Bhumibol Adulyadej keeps six royal elephants at the center .

A toothless 80-year-old was fitted with a set of dentures by animal husbandly officials in Kanchanburi Province. He dentures were installed into the heavily sedated animal to prevent it from dying of starvation After the false teeth were installed it was able to eat bananas and grass as if he had real teeth.

In 1999 a female elephant named Motola had much much of her front left leg blown to bits after she stepped on a land mine in Myanmar. She was fixed up in a lengthy operation at the elephant hospital in Lampang. A team of five surgeons spent three hours just carving away dead flesh and shattered bones. About 30 centimeters of the animal’s foreleg was removed.

During the procedure Motola was anesthetized with enough sedatives to put seven humans into a deep sleep and was secured in a sling held up by a crane Up dates in the elephant’s condition were broadcast on Thai television. The $100,000 medical bill was payed for by donations from ordinary Thais. For six years Motola hobbled around on three legs. In 2005, at the age of 44, she was fitted with 10-kilogram, shoelike prosthesis made with sawdust and canvas held on with a giant sling. This was later replaced with a sturdier model made of fiberglass and silicone.

Elephant Conservation in Thailand

The actress Meg Ryan has been involved in the elephant conservation movement, She narrated and appeared in a 60-minute documentary on Thailand shrinking number of wild elephants. She visited an elephant conservation camp in northern Thailand.

A severe drought in 2005 threatened 100 wild elephants in northern Thailand with starvation. Rain shortages reduce the amount of water un streams and fores destroyed food sources,

In January 2007 there was some discussion if closing the road through Khao Ang Rue Naii Wildlife sanctuary in Chachoegsao Province after a herd of elephants block the road and overturned as many as 10 trucks carry load of sugarcane and tapioca an then gorged themselves in the truck’s cargo. Wild life officials said they elephants may have been encouraged by passers by who three sugarcane and tapioca to the animals.

According to the initiative of Thailand’s Queen Sirikit, the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation was set up for captive elephant. The foundation workes with the Thai Foorestry Department to establish elephant sanctuaries in suitable uninhabited forests. According to folks with the foundation, the introducton process is going well.

Animal Groups and Asian Elephants

A videotape secretly shot by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) animal rights activists in Thailand showed villagers training an elephant for a show by beatings its head and body with metal hooks while the animal screamed in pain. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) called on tourists to boycott Thailand. People who world with elephant said such a ban would serve no practical purpose other than making life for more difficult for Thailand’s domesticated elephants.

"Elephants don't have to dance, paint pictures or roll logs," says Ashley Furno, senior campaign coordinator for PETA told the Washington Post . "We're interested in protecting them so that they can remain in the wild, free to spend their days foraging for food, bathing and interacting with their families and other elephants."

Mike Snow wrote in the Washington Post, “In 2003, PETA mounted an ongoing Asia-wide ad campaign protesting elephant abuse that has garnered attention in Germany, Sweden, Singapore, the United Kingdom and other countries that have traditionally contributed to Thai tourism. But because the elephant camps are privately run, Thai officials find it difficult to address abuses. Moreover, repeated turnover in governments -- there have been three in 20 months -- means that any high-level directives don't stick for long, and interest in the issue waxes and wanes. Officials have focused for the most part on providing limited veterinary care. A project sponsored by the queen to send elephants back into the wild has had measured success, but Soraida Salwala, founder of the private group Friends of the Asian Elephant, charges that government support for the sale of other elephants to Australian zoos for a scientific breeding program helps promote the wildlife trade. [Source: Mike Snow, Washington Post, May 4, 2008]

“The best hope for Thailand's elephants would be government backing for sanctuaries such as Elephant Nature Park and Elephant Haven, two private, nonprofit sanctuaries near the Burmese border that were established by animal rights activist Sangduen "Lek" Chailert to allow elephants to live in a protected natural setting. Their exemplary work has riled those unhappy at the prospect of replacing phaajaans with more time-consuming breaking methods and has earned Chailert death threats, but also recognition by Time magazine as a "hero of Asia." Similar sanctuaries have long operated in Africa. [Ibid]

“A system of national parks could provide Thailand and its tourist industry another valuable revenue stream. But the biggest payoff would be helping replenish the once robust population of Asian elephants, now only about one-tenth the size of Africa's (which numbers between 470,000 and 690,000, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources). Without sufficient funding and official support, though, this seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. So most of the burden of easing the pachyderm population's decline falls on elephant camps, which need better oversight and improvements to make sure that they operate humanely. [Ibid]

Rescued Elephants Centers in Thailand and The People That Run Them

There are several sanctuaries for elephants that have been rescued from illegal operations and abusive owners. Describing one, Douglas H. Chadwick wrote in National Geographic, Sangduen Chailert runs a travel agency in the city of Chiang Mai, but her passion is caring for ani-mals in distress. A sort of one-woman humane society, she has accumulated more than 30 injured or abandoned dogs at her home and feeds another 200 strays. Jokia is one of 17 adult elephants Sangduen has rescued over the years, now passing their days on a 955-acre forest reserve 35 miles north of Chiang Mai, land that she owns or leases from the government. "I can't seem to stop myself," she says as we walk among towering gray bodies in the lush landscape of the Elephant Nature Park. She calls the place Elephant Haven, and it has put her at the forefront of a growing movement for more humane treatment of the animals. The elephants at Sangduen Chailert's reserve in the hills will not be logging or panhandling or performing for onlookers ever again. They spend their days foraging in the forest, splashing in a nearby stream, and playing with friends, both animal and human.[Source: Douglas H. Chadwick, National Geographic, October 2005]

Using my novice mahout skills, I ride uphill on the neck of Mae Perm, the first elephant Sangduen took under her care, in 1992. Trailing behind us is her best friend and constant companion, Jokia, the blind elephant. If Jokia nears a hole or precipice, Mae Perm sends out warning squeals or blocks the way with her body. She directs her friend through the forest with contact calls, and when Jokia is alarmed by some unexpected noise or scent, Mae Perm reassures her with low rumbles and touches of the trunk.

Mae Perm isn't the only one who worries about Jokia. Her mahout, a Burmese refugee named Kum, who also lost an eye in a logging accident, gets nervous about where she and Mae Perm wander at night. They sometimes cross into other valleys, and he's had to search for hours to find them. Once Jokia took off alone. When she finally turned up at a nearby jungle trekking camp, I am told, she not only arrived in good shape but had located a boyfriend from her logging days---the very male thought to have fathered the baby she lost---and mated with him. Kum tells me how Jokia, hearing him come to look for her, often hides in a thicket and uses her trunk to stifle the clapper on the wooden bell she wears. "You are such a sweet girl," he croons to her. "Why must you also be so tricky?"

P’hairat Chaiyakaham is the owner of Pattaya Elephant Village, a tourist camp where the ringmaster's spiel during daily performances is unusual in its emphasis on elephant welfare and conservation. ...Chaiyakaham didn't set out to make his tourist camp a facility for abused elephants, but like Sangduen Chailert, he just kept stumbling across animals whose stories he couldn't ignore. When Chaiyakaham encountered yet another elephant in distress, named Boon Lai, she was in her late 20s and in withdrawal from a serious drug addiction. Mahouts engaged in illegal logging often take yaabaa (methamphetamine) so they can work long hours, skipping food and sleep, and they slip it to their elephants for the same purpose. Some animals fed the drugs are forced to toil by day for one part owner and through the night for another.

"Why," Chaiyakaham asked the man trying to sell Boon Lai, "should I buy a dead elephant?" Beyond exhausted, Boon Lai was a skeleton lost in the folds of her own skin, standing on legs that trembled constantly but could no longer walk. "We had to spray her with water for two hours just to wake her up," Chaiyakaham says. Now, five years later, when I greet Boon Lai, hand to trunk, her back has taken on the graceful shape Thais call garn gluay, curved like a banana stem. She is the friendliest animal in camp. Restoring health to such mistreated elephants is only half the battle. It takes gifted mahouts to restore their spirits as well.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated November 2012

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