Elephants of Thailand
Thailand: Elephants in the Unemployment Line
100 years ago there were at least 100,000 elephants in Thailand. They were a treasured resource. Now sadly, they have become useless and their number has dropped to under 5,000.
Some of the beings on this planet are so small we barely notice when we step on them. Others, like our pets, are of a more manageable size and can live with us as companions. The elephants I met in Thailand, though, were so huge that I understood why cultures have seen them as gods. We imagine it’s our human intelligence that sets us so far above, but a deep look into their wise eyes gives me pause even there. These massive, intelligent, and fully conscious mammals have been our friends, workers, warriors, and gods. Now, having become obsolete, they are reduced to begging in the streets and threatened with their own extinction.
|In their ancient partnership with the people of Thailand, the elephants helped build that nation. For decades, they were a key to the valuable teakwood timbering industry. The elephant’s unique ability to carry logs through narrow forest paths and traverse steep mountainous areas made them indispensable.
Both captured from the wild and born in captivity, these elephants were joined in lifetime partnerships with human caretakers, called mahouts, and taught how to roll and carry felled logs.
In 1989, the worst flooding in the Thai history caused the death of thousands of people. The flood was a direct result of excessive timber harvesting. In reaction, and to protect the rapidly diminishing forests, the Thai government outlawed timbering. This left over three thousand domesticated elephants with no means of supporting themselves.
An adult female elephant weighs 3 to 5 tons and stands almost 8 feet tall. Her six foot trunk has the strength to move 1500 pounds and the agility to pick up a dime. She lives for 70 years, consuming 300 pounds of foliage and 20 gallons of water a day. But with all her intelligence, strength, and loyalty, there is little use for elephant power in the modern world.
The unemployed elephants and their mahouts had only a few choices.
Many continue illegally logging in the northern Thai-Burmese border area. Here, hundreds of elephants a year are injured by land mines, the mountainous terrain, and the drugs they are fed by the mahouts so that they can produce enough to survive. Often, they work at night to avoid detection further increasing their peril.
The tourist industry has provided a haven for thousands of elephants. Elephant camps provide a place where elephant rides and performances generate enough for their food and health care. They also produce dubiously marketable items like elephant dung paper, elephant paintings, greeting cards, and souvenirs. These camps exist through admission fees and donations.
Taking to the streets and begging became a resource for some. Mahouts and elephants would sell trinkets and offer photo opportunities. This is becoming illegal in many areas.
Some were released into the wild. For the most part, that was a death sentence for the elephants. Firstly, there is not much left of ‘the wild’ anymore. Secondly, an unemployed, socialized, and domesticated elephant could no more survive in the wild then could a domesticated poodle.
So what can be done? Elephants are loyal, intelligent, family and community oriented, and very easy to train.
Visit the elephant camps.
We thoroughly enjoyed a two hour elephant ride at the Mei-Ping Elephant Camp. The bench atop a female elephant is breathtakingly high. It sways with a lumbering roll as she walks across the river and through the forest. The mahout sits behind her ears, on the back of her neck and guides her. A gust of wind took my partner’s hat. The elephant behind us reached down with his trunk, picked it up, and handed it back.
|The elephant picked up her hat and 'handed' it back to her!
Support the elephant camps.
Purchasing products or contributing to the camps is an easy way to help. The US dollar goes a long way in Thailand and any amount is appreciated. Contributions can be made to the organization or to a specific elephant.
Sponsor an elephant.
You can care for an elephant without the perils of paper-training. Individuals or groups can sponsor a baby elephant from birth to age four for $760.00 per year. An adult or an injured elephant can be supported for about twice that.
All too often there seems to be no room on this crowded planet for creatures when they are no longer useful to humans. Perhaps it is inevitable that these gigantic companions are to be relegated to begging, dangerous slave labor, and tourist attractions. If we cannot stop the trend toward near-extinction, let’s at least proclaim that it won’t happen in our lifetimes.
Changthai.com website the most complete reference to Thai elephant support.
A Brilliant tribute to elephants and other animals
Lampang's Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC) was established to care for working elephants and their mahouts.
Km. 28-29 Lampang-Chiang Mai Highway,
Hang chat District Lampang Province 52190
Office Phone: (+66) 54 229 042
Fax: (+66) 54 231 150
Bank account (for donations and elephant adoption):
Krung Thai Bank, Lampang Branch
Account name: The Thai Elephant Conservation Center Fund.
Account no: 503-1-84611-9
Once the money is transfered, please notify the staff of TECC by sending transfer slip to the fax number is +66(54)231 150
Elephant Dung Paper Factory, Thai Elephant Conservation Center, Km.28-29, Lampang-Hang Chat, Lampang 52190
Capable of seeing clearly only at very short distances of up to about 20 feet. Sight improves when in jungle areas or shade.
Excellent hearing. Large ears act as amplifiers. Ears are also used to keep them cool.
Highly developed sense of smell. May be superior to that of any other land mammal.
The trunk, a versatile organ, contributes greatly to their balance and agility.
Sense of taste is comparable to all higher animals and can easily distinguish between unsuitable, suitable and flavored fodder.
Breeding Patterns and Birth
Males are highly individualistic and only join the herd for mating seasons. Males duel each other with the winner claiming steed rights for the whole herd. Deaths sometimes occur from wounds inflicted in these duels.
The female runs away coyly for a short while, as part of a ritual, before submitting to her mate. The bull then mounts the female from behind gripping her body with his fore feet upon her pelvis and assumes a standing posture. Copulation takes around 20 seconds with very little movement or noise. Mating continues promiscuously (with other herd males), for two days after which the most powerful bull drives off the others. He then remains with the cow for around three weeks.
The female, when pregnant, carries the calf for 22 months and when parturition (birth) occurs other herd cows form a circle around the pregnant cow. She assumes a squatting position while giving birth and the birth takes around 2 hours.
Just two hours after birth the calf can stand up and begins to suckle the mother.
The life cycle of the elephant is remarkably similar to that of an average human being.
They suckle using the mouth, not trunk.
They are weaned on mother's milk between two and four years. Although the elephant will naturally be attracted to its mother. Other cows in the herd often take turns to look after the baby.
If the mother dies then the other cows look after the orphaned baby.
Cows can bear young at age 16.
In a domesticated setting, they can begin work at 16.
They are fully grown at 20 years old.
They are in their physical prime between 20 and 40 years old.
They start going bald around 30 years old.
An elephant lives for around 70 years.
When they are working, they are put on on light duties only when they reach 50.
When an elephant dies, other elephants will be able to tell if the body is from the same herd. If so, then the herd will avoid that area, apparently out of respect. This is so even when the bones are buried. The reason for this phenomena is unknown but may be attributed to their acute sense of smell.
They are the largest of all land creatures.
A male (bull) can stand 9ft high and weigh between 3 - 5 tons.
Females (cows) stand 7.5 ft high and weigh between 2.3 - 4.5 tons.
Newly born baby elephants (calves) stand 3ft high and weigh 200 lbs.
The brain of the elephant weighs about 11 lbs. (4 times the weight of a human brain).
Their skin is around 1" thick.
Elephants are purely vegetarians. Their favorite foods include: Bananas, bamboo, berries, mangoes, coconuts, corn, jungle shrubs, palm fruits, sugar cane, wood apples and wild rice. Salt is an essential part of their diet.
The elephant’s digestive system is quite inefficient and only around 50% of the fodder eaten is utilized.
Cold climates cause stomach aches.
Some elephants will even peel fruit before eating. The revered holy Thai white elephant is very particular about eating and will not consume any food that has fallen on the ground and will not eat with the rest of the herd.
Trunks may be the most versatile of all animal organs. The trunk can be used to move a 1,500 pound tree or to pick up a coin. It is a boneless mass of flesh containing up to 100,000 muscles that can bend easily. It is 6 feet long and weighs around 300 pounds. The trunk has a small finger like lip at the end which can distinguish between size, shape, texture, hot and cold. The animal uses its trunk to feed and drink by bringing food and water to the mouth. It also uses the trunk to breathe, make noises, caress its young and sometimes even fight. When totally submerged in water the trunk can also be used as a snorkel. Trunks can hold 1 ½ gallons of water and are often used as a flexible shower hose pipe. It is a superb organ of smell, and can be directed easily toward the source.
An elephant may beat the ground violently with the trunk to signal its anger or displeasure.
When an elephant is on unsteady or unfamiliar ground it will use the outside of the trunk to beat the earth, determining if the ground is firm enough to walk on. Once safety is substantiated the front foot is moved forward onto the tested area. The rear foot follows and is carefully placed in exactly the same footprint.
Tusks & Teeth
Males have larger tusks of up to 5 feet in length. Females do not have tusks
Baby tusks, or milk tusks are fully grown at just 2 inches long and are shed before the calf reaches its second birthday. Permanent tusks then begin to grow.
Tusks are teeth (incisors) and are classified as ivory. The only other creature to have ivory teeth is the walrus.
The purpose of the tusk is to dig for food, clear debris, fight and to carry heavy loads of up to 1 ton such as logs.
Molars (grinding teeth) are at least 1 ft long and weigh about 9 lbs. each. The animal has only four of these teeth at any one time. New molars form in the back of the mouth and push the old ones forward and out completely. An elephant usually grows six sets of these molars in a lifetime, the final set grows when it is about 40 years of age. When the last set decays, around 70 years, the elephant finds it hard to eat and dies of starvation. This is a ‘natural’ death for an elephant.
Tusks never stop growing.
The eye is small in comparison with the head and there is only a vestigial tear gland. Elephants do not have a tear duct and 'tears' simply evaporate or run down the cheek.
Copyright Mark Robinson 2003, All rights reserved