by Kristie Rodgers
The largest land animal currently living in Asia, is the Asian elephant which was first mentioned centuries ago in Hindu and Buddhist texts. They have long played a significant spiritual role in Thailand, enjoying a higher status than any other animal.
Unfortunately, the elephant has become increasingly threatened by human encroachment on its habitat, and to a lesser extent, by poaching.
The introduction of bulldozers and other heavy equipment has tended to make the legendary power of the elephant redundant, and a ban on most commercial logging in 1989 led to a sharp decline in the number of captive elephants.
Today, their numbers in the wild are estimated to be just 40,000 to 50,000. It is increasingly common to see elephants being led around resorts and big cities by their mahouts (elephant keepers). A surer way to see them is at elephant camps and shows in places such as Pattaya.
ELEPHANTS IN HISTORY
Elephants were used in the construction of wats, clearing of forests, and logging. Throughout Thai history, they were also a symbol of prestige for Thai kings – the more elephants a king had, the more powerful he was.
Popular as a means of transport, elephants were used to carry both heavy loads such as teak logs as well as people, with the mahout sitting astride the elephant’s neck.
White elephants, in fact albinos, have traditionally been attributed semi-divine status and are considered to be the property of the king. From 1855–1916, the Thai national flag depicted a white elephant on a red background.
Elephants were used in war with Thai and Burmese rulers, in particular, choosing to enter the battlefield on elephant back.
Elephant shows are hugely popular and are staged at severaldestinations, most notably at Nong Nooch Village in Pattaya.
Elephant rides are especially popular with children. Visitors also use them for trekking. These rides are quite common in southern Thailand.
Increasingly endangered in Thailand today, elephants are more likely to be seen in sanctuaries, camps, and special elephant shows. No longer used for logging, they have little employment outside the tourism industry.