To Thais the elephant has profound spiritual significance, derived from both Hindu and Buddhist mythologies. Carvings and statues of Ganesh, the Hindu god with an elephant’s head, feature on ancient temples all over the country and, as the god of knowledge and remover of obstacles, Ganesh has been adopted as the symbol of the Fine Arts Department – and is thus depicted on all entrance tickets to historical sights. The Hindu deity Indra rarely appears without his three-headed elephant mount Erawan, and miniature devotional elephant effigies are sold at major Brahmin shrines, such as Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine. In Buddhist legend, the future Buddha’s mother was able to conceive only after she dreamt that a white elephant had entered her womb: that is why elephant balustrades encircle many of the Buddhist temples of Sukhothai, and why the rare white elephant is accorded royal status and featured on the national flag until 1917.
The practical role of the elephant in Thailand was once almost as great as its symbolic importance. The kings of Ayutthaya relied on elephants to take them into battle against the Burmese – one king assembled a trained elephant army of three hundred – and during the nineteenth century King Rama IV offered Abraham Lincoln a male and a female to “multiply in the forests of America” and to use in the Civil War. In times of peace, the phenomenal strength of the elephant has made it invaluable as a beast of burden: elephants hauled the stone from which the gargantuan Khmer temple complexes of the northeast were built, and for centuries they have been used to clear forests and carry timber.
The traditional cycle for domestic elephants born in captivity is to spend the first three years of their lives with their mothers (who are pregnant for 18–22 months and get five years’ maternity leave), before being separated and raised with other calves in training schools. Each elephant is then looked after by a mahout (kwan chang), a trainer, keeper and driver rolled into one. Traditionally the mahout would have stayed with the elephant for the rest of its life, but nowadays this rarely happens, as being a mahout is seen as a low-status job.
Training begins gently, with mahouts taking months to earn the trust of their charge; over the next thirteen years the elephant is taught about forty different commands, from simple “stop” and “go” orders to complex instructions for hooking and passing manoeuvres with the trunk. By the age of 16, elephants are ready to be put to work and are expected to carry on working until they reach 50 or 60, after which they are retired and may live for another twenty years.
Ironically, the timber industry was the animal’s undoing. Mechanized logging destroyed the wild elephant’s preferred river-valley grassland and forest habitats, forcing them into isolated upland pockets. As a result, Thailand’s population of wild elephants is now thought to be under two thousand, while there are around 2500 domesticated animals – down from a roughly estimated total population of a hundred thousand in 1900 (the Asian elephant is now officially classified as an endangered species). With the 1989 ban on commercial logging within Thai borders – after the 1988 catastrophe when the effects of deforestation killed a hundred people and wiped out villages in Surat Thani province, as mudslides swept down deforested slopes carrying cut timber with them – elephants and their mahouts were faced with the further problem of unemployment. Though a small number of elephants continue to work in the illegal teak-logging trade along the Burmese border, most mahouts struggle to find the vast amount of food needed to sustain their charges – about 125kg per beast per day.
Tourism has stepped into the breach, mostly in the form of elephant shows and trekking, though it’s been a mixed blessing to say the least, as the elephants are often poorly treated, overworked or downright abused. In town streets and on beaches, you’ll often see mahouts charging both tourists for the experience of handfeeding their elephants bananas or sugar cane, and Thais for the chance to stoop under their trunks for good luck. At any one time, there may be up to two hundred elephants effectively begging in this way in Bangkok, which is simply not the right environment for them – they’re regularly involved in road accidents, for example, despite the red reflectors that many sport on their tails; overall, it’s best not to feed city elephants in this way. Demand from the tourism industry is now outstripping supply, and it’s feared that captive beasts – which have a lower birth rate than elephants in the wild – may disappear in the next ten years or so, which in turn will mean that wild elephants will again be under threat (see The wildlife). According to recent reports, the number of baby elephants being registered exceeds the number of births, suggesting many are being taken from the wild.