Lumbering and languid, but certainly not lazy, elephants have had an important and honoured role in Thailand for thousands of years. They have been used to help fight wars, carry kings, build temples, and most recently in a sad irony, they have been used to clear their own habitat for the logging industry.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Thailand was home to 300,000 wild elephants and another 100,000 domesticated for farming and logging. Today there are less than 4000 elephants in Thailand in the wild and in captivity with some estimates of the wild population being less than 1000. With estimates as low as 25,000 to as high as 50,000 Asian elephants throughout the region, the species is listed as endangered by the International Union of the Conversation of Nature’s Red List.
Thailand’s rain forest which once covered more than 90% of the country has now decreased to 15%. In 1990 Thailand outlawed logging, leaving several thousand elephants out of work and considerably less habitat to return to. Today elephants play an important role in Thailand’s tourism industry. Most operations are reputable, but this is not necessarily always the case so it is important to research your elephant experience, being particularly careful of those ‘for profit’ operations.
The Chiang-Dao Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai has been in operation since 1969. Our elephant experience included a demonstration of how these large animals used their trunks with great precision to move logs as well as many other skills – the most amazing was painting. The painting elephant’s ‘mahout’, handed the artist the appropriate brush with paint and much to my surprise a painting emerged that was not random, but remarkable.
Each elephant has its own Mahout – a rider, handler and trainer. Often, a mahout is assigned to an elephant as young boy and the two spend their entire lives together.
We gathered along the riverbank to watch the mahouts give their elephants their daily bath. From around the corner emerged a parade of the gentle giants, each topped with their mahout in their distinctive blue uniforms. A few commands, and the elephants first knelt down, then some down on all fours, others rolling with delight in the river as their masters splashed and scrubbed.
Then, two by two, we boarded our ride, setting off for an hour trek through the jungle, the mahout guiding and encouraging our elephant with a combination of foot prodding, vocal commands and a hook that he uses behind the elephant’s ear.
Through the jungle our pachyderms plodded with us on their backs. Up steep hills, down the riverbank and through the river, each step seeming effortless, but requiring great finesse. It was spectacular and something I have always wanted to do. To be up close to these highly intelligent and social gentle giants was a privilege and highlight of my time in Thailand.
By a sweet tongue and kindness, you can drag an elephant with a hair.