Working Thai Elephants

Will Work for Food...

Elephants are amazing animals. The overall impossibility of their size and prehensile trunk is often astonishing. Their relationship with man is hard to understand. Why does anything that big agree to be bossed around by something about a tenth its size? Far from viewing it as a demonstration of man's preordained mastery over the "lesser" animals, when I actually see a mahout grunting and wriggling around on and elephant's back, I'm reminded of an indulgent parent patiently trying to please an unruly youngster.

Elephants and their mahouts
Some working elephants with their mahouts.

No one seems to know when humans started to make use of the Asian elephant. In Thailand, it appears that the relationship has gone on for about 1,000 years. Elephants were used in war as well as in royal processions. Until the end of the absolute monarchy in the 1930's the Thai flag consisted of a white elephant on a red field.

In modern times, the elephant's role has been largely to assist in the near total deforestation of Thailand. With nearly 90% of the country stripped of timber, logging was completely outlawed in the late 80's. But then there was the problem of what to do with out of work elephants. Since the rest of the Thai economy was booming at the time, a lot of mahouts brought their charges to Bangkok, to work on construction sites.

A big city is not exactly the best place for an elephant. There's noisy cars that may not be as big as an elephant, but they can still do a lot of damage. And though they're not nocturnal animals, nature did equip the dark gray elephant with the perfect coloring to blend into the concrete jungle at night. Unfortunately, nature didn't give the elephant headlamps or taillights, although some of the more thoughtful mahouts have clipped battery-operated bicycle tail lamps to their tails. If you've ever come hood-to-trunk with one of the big beasts at night, as I have more than once driving the narrow alleys near home, it's not something you easily recover from. Taking sympathy on the plight of elephants in the city, the Bangkok administration banned elephants from the city a few years ago. However, mahouts continue to come into the city in search of work or handouts.

Although man may have tamed the elephant, we shouldn't forget that we haven't domesticated them. Elephants belong in the wild, or at least in the forests. For those animals already taken from the wild, it seems the best place for them is the elephant camps of the North, which mostly exist for the benefit of tourists these days. At places such as the Pang camp in the Mae Rim valley near Chiang Mai you can see the beasts demonstrate their skills, which they sometimes seem to enjoy almost as much as the tourists enjoy watching it.

After the show, you can book an elephant for your own tour, which can last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or more. Although, you should be warned that the rocking motion of an elephant's back is not the most comfortable ride there is. Be prepared to hang on tight!

For a more meaningful experience, consider spending some time at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang province, a government-run project to provide rehabilitation and training of Thai elephants. You can spend from one to three days here, learning the basics of being a mahout. Note that while the site has a lot of interesting pictures and a blog, it doesn't have much information about the center itself.

A more "comfortable" option would be the elephant experience programs at either the Anantara Resort or Four Seasons Tented Camp in the Golden Triangle area of Chiang Rai province. The elephants here come from the Conservation Center in Lampang, but the training program is less varied.