If it’s true that elephants never forget then elephants in Thailand should be starting to get excited as the annual elephants birthday celebrations draw closer and closer.
Originally the backbone of the Thai military and later the backbone of the Thai teak logging industry, the Thai elephant (Elephas maximus or Asian elephant) remains a potent and often encountered symbol in Thailand.
In addition to adorning royal standards and regalia and being the symbol on the country’s previous national flag, the Thai word for elephant, chang, is also the name of the country’s national beer
In recognition of the importance elephants have had in the history of Thailand, the white elephant was adopted as the kingdoms national symbol in 1963 and in 1998 the Thailand Government proclaimed March 13th to be Thai National Elephant Day.
From the northern reaches of the country at the Elephant Nature Park at Mae Taeng and the Mae Sa (Maesa) Elephant Camp both located outside of Chiang Mai, to the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary in the south, celebrations are held to honor the animal that helped modern day Thailand prosper, and ancient Thailand to vanquish and conquer.
While tourists who encounter elephants on the streets of Bangkok, Phuket, Pattaya, Chiang Mai, or Chiang Rai might be under the impression there is no shortage of elephants in Thailand, nothing could be further from the truth. Today the Asian elephant is officially classified as highly endangered.
Since the beginning of the 20th century the number of elephants in Thailand has dropped from 100,00 to 300,000, to between 2,500 and 4,000 today.
When the government outlawed logging in 1989, thousands of Thai logging elephants and their mahouts became unemployed. While some mahouts smuggled their logging elephants into Burma where they still work in that country’s logging industry today, many other mahouts faced destitution meeting their charges feed bills.
According to Khun Lek from Elephant Nature Park there were 80 elephants in Bangkok the last time they conducted a survey – many of them former logging elephants. Scores more live in the urban fringes of Thailand’s other tourist destinations, taking to the street each night to beg money for food from tourists, as their mahouts try to cater to the 250kg of food consumed daily by an adult Thai elephant.
It’s a hard and grueling existence with the elephants slowly tramping their way across blisteringly hot asphalt roads in the hot afternoon sun getting to the tourist precincts, and often not retuning to their resting place until almost sunrise. Many former Thai logging elephants are owned by “elephant mafia’” and in the past veterinarian examinations have found many to be suffering from a range of ailments including internal and external wounds and infections, and even malnutrition.
While there will be little in the way of celebratory feasts for the less fortunate former Thai logging elephants on March 13th, for the hundreds more living in elephant sanctuaries such as at the Four Seasons Tented Camp at the Anantara Resort & Spa Golden Triangle Chiang Rai, the Mae Sa (Maesa) Elephant Camp, and the Elephant Nature Park, March 13th is celebrated with feasts, celebrations and Buddhist blessing ceremonies.
Many of the elephant camps and sanctuaries throughout Thailand have active breeding programs and last year a calf was born at the Mae Sa Elephant Camp on elephant birthday eve.
Tourists in Thailand at the time of the elephants birthday are encouraged to seek out their local elephant park or sanctuary and participate in the uniquely “jumbo” celebrations, while at the same time helping the Asian elephants survival. Many Thailand elephant sanctuaries charge no admission, instead surviving from individual donations, NGOs and support foundations.
At many locations throughout Thailand former logging elephant are now used for trekking, with a number of certified ecotourism operators now balancing commercialism with conservation activities.
While many people do not agree with the former logging elephants being taught how to paint, play musical instruments, or used for jungle treks, being employed in the tourism sector is far better than dragging logs through the forests of Burma, or being walked though Thailand’s tourist precincts begging for sticks of sugar cane, while Thailand’s notoriously bad traffic swerves around them – most of the time.
Video of 2008 elephant birthday celebrations at the Mae Sa Elephant Camp outside of Chiang Mai can be found in this newsblog’s video gallery
© John Le Fevre, 2009
More information on the elephant birthday celebrations can be found at: Tourism Authority of Thailand
Those concerned about the future of the Asian elephant can click on the text links in this story and be taken to the appropriate organizations website or click on the text links below.
He is currently deputy editor and Thailand / GMS region editor for The Establishment Post
Opinions and views expressed on this site are those of the author’s only. Read more at About me