The Asian Elephant (Elephas Maximus) is native to Thailand, wild herds of Asian elephants can still be found in Thailand and 12 other countries, comprising China, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Burma, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
The elephant has played an important role in Thailand’s history, culture, and even religion. The high regard and reverence the Thais have for the noble elephant were reflected by the use of an elephant on a former version of Thailand’s national flag. Coincidentally, Thailand happens to be shaped like an elephant’s head, the tip of its trunk is in Hat Yai, the mouth is Bangkok, the eyes in Sukothai, and the eyebrows in Lampang.
According to Thai legend, elephants are symbolic of a good marriage, the front legs are the husband, they choose the direction. The back legs are the wife, they are the strength and driving force.
Elephants in Thailand History Timeline
- Religious significance was given to elephants when Buddha’s mother dreamed of a White Elephant before she became pregnant.
- The first records of elephants being used in battle date back to the 9th century when Thailand was under Khmer rule.
- In 1593 Thailand’s King Naresuan killed Barma’s Crown Prince Minchit when the 2 faced each other during combat on elephants.
- Thailand used elephants in battle from the 15th century until the Franco-Siamese war of 1893.
- In the early 1900s there was an estimated 100,000 wild elephants and 100,000 domestic elephants in Thailand.
- From 1855 to 1917 the flag of Thailand featured an elephant.
- The advent of modern warfare, namely artillery and mechanization meant the elephant was ineffective in battle.
- The advent of motorized vehicles in the 1900s meant the elephants use as a utility vehicle was in less demand.
- In 1989 the Thai government imposed a logging ban, effectively rendering the majority of Thailand’s working elephants redundant.
- Today there are only 1,500 – 2000 wild elephants, and 2000 – 3000 domestic elephants remaining in Thailand.
- The present-day plight of both wild and domestic elephants in Thailand has come under much scrutiny.
Thailand’s War Elephants
History suggests that elephants were first used on the battlefield in India as early as the 4th century B.C. The mighty War Elephants helped the Khmer during their conquests of Southeast Asia from the 9th century through to the 15th century. After the collapse of the Khmer empire, the might of the elephant was used in battle by neighboring countries including Thailand.
Thailand’s ruling kings employed the elephant in battle, most notably during the 300-year war against Burma. The colossal size of the elephant effectively made it a medieval tank, it was used to break enemy lines and wreak havoc on the enemy soldiers. One Thai King was reputed to have as many as 20,000 war elephants in his ranks.
White Elephants In Thailand
Due to their association with the birth of Buddha, White Elephants are revered and receive protected status in Thailand. If a White Elephant meets the criteria, it becomes the property of the King of Thailand. Currently, the King has around 10 White Elephants. Besides their religious significance, White Elephants are also a symbol of a king’s power.
Wild Elephants in Thailand
The plight of the wild elephant in Thailand is characteristic of the plight of wild animal populations worldwide. Humanization and loss of natural habitat are the major contributing factors that have caused the demise of Thailand’s Asian Elephant herds. It’s ironic that the elephant has been an unwitting and unwilling contributor to it’s own demise
Elephants were the backbone of Thailand’s logging industry, which in turn is responsible for diminishing Thailand’s forest cover from 90 percent in 1900 to just 25 percent today. Nowadays, the wild elephant herds of Thailand are protected, efforts are being made to prevent poaching and to protect what remains of their natural habitat. The largest numbers of wild elephants can be seen in national Parks, such as Khao Yai.
FACT: heavy monsoon rains in 1988 caused widespread flooding and landslides, in the aftermath of the damage the Thai government imposed a ban on logging. Furthermore, an initiative was set in place to reforest the areas left barren by logging, unfortunately, most of the species used for reforesting were not a suitable diet for the elephant population.
Reasons for the demise of Thailand’s Wild Elephants
- Deforestation caused by logging.
- Herds isolated by highways.
- Conflict with farmers.
- Poaching for ivory.
- Lack of suitable food to forage.
- Capture of young elephants for commercial use.
- poor distribution of genes due to isolation.
Domestic Elephants In Thailand
Before Thailand became mechanized, elephants were relied on heavily, they were the workhorses of Thailand, used as transport, in warfare, and most notably in the inhospitable rain forests where their strength, agility, and durability were put to use in the logging industry. Modern machinery and transport slowly became more efficient and cost-effective than the elephant, gradually, the elephants were replaced by tractors, bulldozers, and all-terrain vehicles.
It’s a little surprising, even disconcerting to know that the treatment and welfare of Thailand’s domestic elephants are governed by the Draught Animals Act, giving them the same status as buffalo and oxen. The 1989 ban on logging had a huge impact on Thailand’s domestic elephant population. Virtually overnight, the majority of elephants and their mahouts employed in the logging industry became unemployed.
Life On The Streets
Some mahouts and their elephants turned to the illegal logging trade. For some, life on the streets in search of tourist dollars was the answer. The mahouts would find a piece of land and let their elephants forage during the day, by night they would seek out tourists and sell them bananas and sugar cane, which the tourists then feed to the elephants.
Big city streets are no place for an elephant, metaled roads are not kind to their feet, smog and traffic fumes are detrimental to their health
the diet they receive is insufficient and lacking, they are hazardous to traffic, and traffic is hazardous to them, many are killed or injured in collisions with traffic.
Thailand Street Elephant Facts
- Juvenile elephants are often used on the streets of Bangkok and other Thai tourist destinations because they are more appealing, require less food, less room to forage, and they are more profitable.
- Some “street elephants” are bought by owners who simply hire them out on a monthly basis.
- Thailand’s street elephants often have multiple owners who share the work and the profit, often resulting in an overworked elephant.
- During the day many are “stored” on unsuitable land, often tethered, and without sufficient food and water.
- Bangkok City placed a ban on mahouts walking the city with their elephants.
- Restaurants are seen as the most profitable stopping points for street elephants.
Thailand’s Elephant Tourism Industry
Thailand’s booming tourist industry has marketed the elephant very efficiently, there is a huge demand for elephant trekking and elephant shows.
The most popular form of “elephant tourism” in Thailand is elephant trekking. Commercial elephant trekking centers have flourished in Thailand’s tourist resorts. Elephant trekking, more specifically “elephant trekking operators” have come under much criticism in recent years, critics claim that elephant trekking is cruel. The sweeping criticisms claim that the elephants are overworked, bullied, deprived, and that the fashion in which most elephants carry their passengers is actually harmful to the elephant.
Alternatives to elephant trekking are now becoming quite popular in Northern Thailand, they are being highly recommended and highly publicized. These alternatives include elephant rescue and conservation centers, elephants abused and neglected by commercial owners, (including trekking centers) are often taken into their care.
Thailand’s Elephant Shows
The Asian Elephant is a very versatile and intelligent creature, this intelligence, versatility, and even its amazing agility can be seen at “elephant shows” such as the one at Nong Nooch Gardens in Pattaya. Elephants can be seen performing incredible acts of agility such as riding tricycles or balancing on their 2 front and legs. Elephants are no slouches in the sporting arena either, they are adept with a basketball or a football, they can use their trunk to throw a basketball with incredible accuracy.
While the fate of Thailand’s wild elephant herds is at the mercy of mankind, bureaucracy, and government influence, the versatility of the Asian Elephant has seen its domestic role change with circumstance and demand. As the plight of Thailand’s elephants attracts more media coverage there might once again be a change of circumstance, and hopefully, for the elephant, it will be a better circumstance.