Elephants in Thailand have always been at the center of Thai culture, history & society.They are seen as a symbol of both immense power yet peace in this South-East Asian country.
In days gone by they were trained as the masters of war,took part in grand ceremonies & processions & later became indispensible in the logging industry long before machines were ever invented.
The importance of the elephant even extended to that of being as a symbol of ultimate royal power in Thailand. Many a Thai king was judged by the amount of Royal White Elephants he owned, the more he owned, the more fearsome he was adjudged to be, as according to the nations Theravada Buddhism beliefs they were seen as a sign of ultimate power, fertility & success!.
This magnificent animal’s contribution to the Kingdom is so revered by the Thai people, that its image was incorporated into the design of their country’s flags up until the country changed it’s name from Siam to Thailand in the early 20th century.
However, even with all the “honor” bestowed upon the elephants in Thailand by the Thai people, not much has been done to preserve the potential extinction of the species todate.
From a population of around 100,000 elephantsat the turn of the 20th century, their numbers have now dwindled to an estimated 4,000-5,000 in recent years, with approximately 50% still in the wild & 50% trained & “domesticated”.
It’s only 100 years ago that the Asian Elephant roamed freely in large numbers around the jungles of Burma(Myanmar),Laos & Thailand, all that has now changed forever!.
Wild elephant numbers have gone down dramatically mainly due to massive deforestation, huge areas of jungle & forests have been completely cleared primarily in the north-east & north-west of the country, leaving these magnificent pachyderms without a natural habitat.
The passing of laws some 30+ years ago making ALL logging of teak wood trees illegal also placed additional pressures on the mainly Hill Tribe Mahouts(trainers) who looked after the elephants, with many owners of sick or old domesticated elephants left to struggle to maintain their expensive upkeep.
Several of the better camps have actively sought distressed, injured & olderelephants to try & offer a better life for these giants of the jungle,Elephantstay located at Ayutthaya ,the Elephant Nature Park and thePatara Farm near Chiang Mai are all good examples of how to look after the elephants of Thailand without completely exploiting them.
Then in 2002 following a visit to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC) at Lampang in northern Thailand by Princess Galyani the center was re-named as the National Elephant Institute (NEI) & placed under the royal patronage of the Princess,thus guaranteeing that the profile of elephants in Thailand would once more be of the utmost importance.
The main objectives of the National Elephant Institute are “to develop sustainable elephant conservation and to preserve the local traditions that involved the Thai elephant”.
The establishment of the NEI does not only benefit elephant conservation, but it will also help the country’s tourism industry, where the elephants also have a major role within.
Amongst the projects initiated by the NEI is the Elephant & Mahout Training School. This is where elephant keepers and handlers (locally known as mahout) learn the proper ways to take care and to train their elephants.
The NEI has also spearheaded an “Elephant Adoption” project, where interested individuals or organizations can sponsor an elephant’s maintenance. The donations can be made in full or through instalments.
In a separate new initiative opening in late November 2009, elephantsthat are retired, aging or sick will now have a special place to call their own. The Pang-La Nursery Home for Aged Elephants located in the Ngao district of Lampang Province is the first of it’s kind in Thailand,is being run by the Forest Industry Organisation(FIO), which in years gone by was also involved in the management of elephants used within the logging industry.
The elephant “retirement home” will be host to 30 elephants initially, but the total area of 395 acres is sufficient room for up to 200 elephants in total. The center will have its own mahouts and veterinarians to make sure theelephants are cared for in the best possible way.
The Pang-La Nursery Home will also be growing their own food for the animals to ensure quality, conservation, supply & cost efficiencies. A further similar venture to the Lampang retirement home is already planned for Krabiin southern Thailand for 2010.
The center is also open to visitors, but they should not set their expectation levels too high, this is a “retirement home for the giant “old-timers” – not a theme park!.
With the genuine efforts of the few, hopefully the prospects for the future of the elephants of Thailand will start to look a little rosier than the dark days of the last 30 years!.