The elephant has been a cultural icon in Thailand throughout history. This magnificent animal is considered to be a symbol of fortune and peace, with many people believing the superstition that passing underneath it’s body will bring good luck. In many old Temples, the image of this incredible mammal can be found in abundance and it was even engraved on old coins. Elephants were also used by the Thai people in their fight against the Burmese, in an astonishing ally. A white elephant appears on the flag of the Royal Thai Navy, as a symbol of royalty and power, however, they themselves were not used in warfare. In the late 17th century a Thai King had as many as 20,000 war elephants trained for battle- an astonishing concept.
White Elephants are very rare and due to this have become the property of the reigning monarch. It was thought that a King who had many healthy white elephants would be successful, as his Kingdom would flourish and his reign would be long. However, if his white elephants died this was thought to be a very bad omen with regards to the King and his KIngdom. The scriptures have associated the white elephant with the birth of Buddha, as his mother was said to have dreamed of a white elephant presenting her with a lotus flower, a symbol of wisdom and purity, on the eve of giving birth. They are therefore considered as being sacred and are protected from labour.
White elephants were occasionally given by the monarch to courtiers, as a mark of especial favour along with the right amount of land to support the elephant’s needs. This was considered the highest reward. However, a monarch could also give a white elephant to punish someone who had fallen out of favour with him in some way. The sacred animal would be given to this person without any land. White elephants can not be refused and so had to be accepted. The new owner would be put out of pocket entirely, as he had to feed the animal at his own expense. The term “white elephant” derived from this punishment, meaning something given that is not wanted.
When I travelled to Thailand last year I had the opportunity to visit an elephant hospital. When I arrived it was clear to see how valued these animals were by the care and attention every single patient received. The Mahouts worked very hard to make the elephants comfortable and to treat their various illnesses, as best they could. Each Mahout would form a special bond with a particular elephant, gaining its trust and increasing the animals feeling of security.
There were elephants with a whole array of problems. Many had been Burmese land mine victims found injured on the Thai/ Burmese border, others had skin infections or infections of the tusks. One mother was at the hospital with her baby. She could not produce enough milk and her little one had been slowly starving. It was upsetting to see bones protruding from such a miniature animal. The Mahout in charge of the mother and baby spent every waking moment by their side, encouraging the adult to eat and hand feeding the baby milk out of a bottle. They seemed to be doing well and the young one was not afraid to be a little bit cheeky and reverse his backside through the poles of their enclosure, to use our legs as scratching posts.
I was amazed to learn that elephants were continuously admitted, suffering from depression, stress or anorexia. Incredibly, they have emotions and awareness similar to human beings.
To help fund the hospital and to keep the elephants active, a show would be put on several times a day by animals that I believe were healthy and simply resided at the hospital. Elephants, displayed their intelligence by performing tasks such as “logging”, which involves exact lining up and stacking of logs. Elephants used to be put to work in the forests carrying out this job on a far larger, brutal scale, however, it was banned in 1989. A five minute period was taken to give the audience an insight into why elephants were used for such a chore but was kept concise to save the animals from hard labour. Their accuracy was astonishing and they really worked as a team.
My personal highlight of the show was watching the elephants become artists, which confirmed in my mind the intellect of these amazing animals. I could not believe it as I stood watching the elephants paint beautiful flowers, human hunters with javelins and even pictures of their own species.
When I first decided to watch the show, I felt a little uncomfortable, as I did not want to witness or encourage maltreatment in any way. However, there was absolutely no abuse to see, the show was short and each elephant was guided by his own personal Mahout who he had come to trust. I realised that although this was a tourist attraction its key purpose was to keep the hospital functioning. The Mahouts wanted to maintain the high standard of care they offered and where possible improve it. The selling of t-shirts further emphasised the hospital’s desire to help fund their cause, with all money from purchases being put back into the project. The elephants were rewarded with a long bath in the complexes large water hole twice a day and were in very good condition.
Unfortunately, even though the elephant is widely respected and loved in Thailand there are many problems with regards to the treatment of these animals today. The old method of using elephants for “logging” was banned in 1989, however, many are still used for illegal “logging” near or over the Burmese border. Sometimes elephants are given drugs to ensure they are able to work for extremely long hours and can be malnourished and dehydrated. A significant amount of these animals are privately owned and are often sold on. Transferring between locations and owners frequently causes serious distress. The keepers commonly have no emotional connection or ties to the elephant they own, tend to mistreat them and have no control over them when the animal becomes enraged.
A male can go through a period called the “musth period”, which is caused by a surge in reproductive hormones causing severe aggression. It can last for months in some males and can be very dangerous. Isolation in a place with sufficient food and water is necessary, as well as allowing time for the elephant to rest and not make it work so hard. If the owner does not know how to treat his animal properly the results can be tragic.
Many animals are often cruelly trained to be street entertainers or to work in circuses. Animals are often made to stand on their two front feet in order to entertain tourists, which can cause severe bone disorders as they get older. Some owners place tight iron clamps around each of the elephants feet and tie them up on short metal chains for long hours of the day. Being so restricted can cause neurotic disorders and many elephants spend their days weaving their heads from side to side, giving the impression that they are dancing continuously. Animals are often brought to major cities like Bangkok to beg. The constant noise and touch they experience can cause significant distress and anxiety.
The Thai Animal Guardians Association (AGA), is working hard to combat many of these problems. They are trying to set up a National Committee and push new regulations on the protection of elephants. Wild elephants are listed as Protected Animals under the Conservation Act 1992. However, considering the present situation, they should now be listed as endangered. Unfortunately, domesticated elephants are considered to be commercial animals under the Beast of Burden Act 1939 and the owner has the right to trade and use the animal at will. It proves very difficult to break such traditions and laws. We must call upon tourists to try not to encourage practices they can see are deliberately cruel.