In Northern Thailand, Appreciating a Creature of Myth, War, and Untold Legends
The elephant looms large in Thai history and culture. Signs of its omnipotence are everywhere. The symbol of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration depicts the Hindu god Indra astride his elephant named Erawan. Outside Thai universities lay shrines to Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of art and knowledge. In museums and photographic archives, you may see an old flag of Siam, before the country’s name was changed to Thailand, featuring a sacred white elephant, or illustrations of regally attired war elephants carrying kings and princes on their backs into battle.
While elephant rides have long been an itinerary-filler here, in more recent years a number of camps have opened in the north of Thailand where visitors can train to be a mahout—an elephant handler—for a day, or a week, or more.
One such facility is the Ran-Tong Save and Rescue Elephant Centre, which claims to have rescued eight of their elephants from the streets of Bangkok. It doesn’t keep its charges chained up or put on any circus-style shows either, where the beasts are trained to play football and wiggle their bottoms to pop songs, which are encouraging signs that the animals are treated well.
But that is impossible to verify. Many conservationists believe that such mahout-training programmes are wrong and that riding on the backs of elephants does damage to their spines. One hears stories, equally impossible to verify, of young creatures being separated from their mothers and treated cruelly in order to break them so they can be ridden.
With some very real misgivings I decided to try the programme to make up my own mind.
Our half-day programme started with an early morning pick-up and an hour’s drive out of Chiang Mai city, in the country’s North, to the green highlands of Mae Taeng. Elephants are perfectly adapted to these hilly climes, even serving as the taxis and trains a century ago, when a journey from Bangkok to Chiang Mai could take a month or more.
The camp sits at the bottom of a verdant valley. We were first introduced to the elephants in an outdoor area ringed by wooden buildings, where we fed them bananas and sugarcane before donning straw hats and rough-hewn cotton shirts. Our new guises and the colossal presences of such mythical creatures appearing in the flesh inspired a lot of “selfie-indulgence” as everyone took photos of themselves for social media, which, maligned as it may be, can also be a powerful force for disseminating information about these imperilled creatures.
During the initial briefing session, the main mahout quickly shot down any high-flying pretensions we had of attaining much expertise as an elephant handler in a day. Brandishing a chalkboard, he showed us the Thai words for the six main commands: melong (lay down); hao (stop); khwa (turn right); sai (turn left); toy (reverse); pai (go). Then he said, “Don’t worry. The elephants won’t listen to you anyway.” That wisecrack set off a chain reaction of chuckles popping like a string of firecrackers.
Then it was time to meet our elephants for the day. My ride, named Mae Baer, was a small female aged five or six. All the other creatures that would serve as our mounts and mentors were females too. This is a safety precaution. The males are simply too unpredictable to ever fully tame. When they go into musth during the rutting season, they defy the gentle giant stereotype and become extremely dangerous. Last year, a bull elephant terrorised a series of automobile drivers in Thailand’s Khao Yai National Park by charging at and damaging their vehicles.
It’s easy to spot the most prominent difference between the sexes of the Asian elephant. Only the males, though not all of them, have tusks. In contrast, the larger African elephant, both male and females, can have tusks, making them prime targets for poachers in search of ivory.
There are three main ways of getting on an elephant, thereby multiplying your chances of looking awkward and foolhardy threefold. The most difficult methods are being lifted up by its trunk and scrambling over its head or climbing up a leg that it extends to give you a boost. Most of us chose the easiest method: waiting for the real mahout to make the beast squat down and then clamber up on its back.
To ride one of these jumbos, the mahout sits behind its ears, holding on to what looks and feels like a length of garden hose wrapped around its neck. This is a precarious position. Each time the creature dips its skull, cratered with bumps and indentations and carpeted in spiny black hair, the mahout has to grip on to the hose tightly and veer back so as not to take a tumble.
Within 10 minutes, and 100 repeated commands, the main guide’s prophecy came true. The world’s largest living land animal ignored all of our repeated instructions. We were not driving them, so much as they were following their gut instincts, frequently stopping to forage or ambling along the path.
It was more of a comedy caper than a wildlife thriller until the scene changed genres. One of the bigger beasts, carrying a Western couple, veered off the dirt path and into a rattling clump of bamboo to start chewing the leaves, leaving them with a few scratches after getting flogged by branches. Soon a mahout stepped in to help them out of harm’s way and the animal listened to his commands.
My elephant was easy-going, so I was happy enough to go along for the ride. Frankly, I didn’t feel worthy of commanding a powerful beast that had inspired so much mythology and folklore. Though appearing ungainly, she was actually very agile and sure-footed, skirting the edges of a muddy ribbon of path beside a steep drop off with not even a metre as margin for error and never losing her balance.
The last leg of the training marathon was bathing the elephants in a pool when they, in turn, bathed us by using their trunks as shower hoses. Afterwards, still dripping water, the most daring newbie in our group attempted to mount her charge by letting the animal lift her up with its trunk. She beamed during the whole ordeal, scrambling up and over its head to assume the seat of honour atop its neck: a feat of gymnastics that proved some rookies can make it to the next level of training.
So much for the fantasy of becoming elephant handlers. Now it was time for some reality checks about this endangered species that came up during the final briefing. Our guide told us that are now only around 7,000 elephants left in Thailand, down from 100,000 a century ago. Adam Oswell, the founder and director of the Wildlife 1 Conservancy based in Chiang Mai, backed up that claim. In 2012 he did a comprehensive survey of elephant camps and zoos in Thailand for the anti-wildlife-trafficking group TRAFFIC, counting some 5,043 individuals, which means there may only be some 2,000 creatures left in the wild.
Asked about the creature’s future in Thailand, Adam said, “It’s pretty grim because of the loss of habitat and being poached for their tusks. These days conservation work is all about protection, limiting the damage. So the only viable option for elephants in captivity is tourism.”
For an animal that once carried kings and appeared on the national flag, that’s a mighty big fall from grace, but these Asian elephants are doing better than their larger African cousins, which are currently being killed at an average rate of 30,000 per year—that’s one every 20 minutes—to feed the insatiable appetite for the status symbol of ivory, which is particularly popular in China.
All that bad news provoked some bipolar feelings in us would-be mahouts. On the one hand it was a big and very fun day out. On the other it was heart-rending to learn that this dying breed will be on its last legs within another decade or two, both in Africa and Asia, if the current rates of poaching and deforestation continue unchecked.
But if camps like these in northern Thailand can do their part to raise awareness of the creatures’ plight and some of the visitors help to spread this message, and if the efforts of authorities continue in China to crackdown on the ivory trade, then there may be some hope on the horizon for the only living creature besides humans that mourns their dead.
When a member of the herd dies, the other elephants cover it with branches and then mill around the corpse, making the most low and mournful noises in their complex language, for days on end. Besides the elephant’s huge role in Buddhism and Hinduism, their sense of empathy and humanlike behaviour is part of the reason why Thais feel that they are the most advanced of animals. So much so that elephants will become humans in their next reincarnations.
PRICES: Ran-Tong and many other camps are priced around the same for the full-day mahout programme: B2400 each for two people sharing an elephant and B4500 for a single person.
ETHICS: Any reputable camp will have a list of ethical values they practice, such as not separating mothers from calves, not chaining up their charges, or not staging circus-like spectacles.
NOTABLE CAMPS: Also near Chiang Mai is the Elephant Nature Park run by Thailand’s most famous wildlife conservationist, Lek Chailert. At this facility, visitors can only feed and bathe the elephants. They cannot ride them. Not far from Chiang Mai, in the province of Lampang, is the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, which runs mahout programmes and houses the world’s first elephant hospital.
Stopping the Slaughter
If there were no demand for ivory products, there would be no killing of elephants for their tusks. It’s that simple.
Every traveller can use their purchasing power to keep this species alive firstly by not purchasing such products and secondly by not staying in hotels with gift shops that sell ivory trinkets, says Steve Galster, the founder and director of Freeland, an anti-wildlife trafficking NGO based in Bangkok. “Tourists should do some research on the various hotels, find out if the hotels are selling any ivory products in their gift shops, and, if they are, then don’t stay there.”
Steve added that these shops, as well as stalls at Chatuchak Market and amulet vendors, can sell the products by exploiting a loophole in Thai law that only bans the ivory of African elephants from being sold; using the tusks of domestic elephants which died of natural causes is fine.
But how can anyone tell the difference? That’s extremely difficult. The loophole, and a voracious black market for illicit wildlife products, has made Thailand second only to China as a transit point for smuggled ivory. The sixth meeting of the conference of parties to CITES (the UN’s Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species), which was held in Bangkok in 2013, brought renewed attention to the issue, with actor Leonardo Di Caprio joining a chorus of calls for then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to close the loophole. She pledged to do so, but little progress has been made so far.