Have you heard “an elephant never forgets”? If we discovered how elephants retain their elephantine memory, would we find a cure for Alzheimer’s? Or perhaps you have heard of elephant graveyards; and the myth about how dying elephants make their way to the gravesite and conveniently die there, adding their bones and tusks to the piles there. Whatever the myths about elephants, I found the truth much sadder.
In Thailand today, there are some 5,000 elephants. Half live in the wild, and the other half are domesticated. Yes, elephants have lived alongside man for thousands of years, and trained to do his bidding – from carrying royalty to fighting human wars. In my previous post, I showed an elephant painting, most likely executed from memory. Most recently in Thailand, elephants were essential for the logging industry, hauling logs to the river so they may float down to timber factories downstream. However, thousands of elephants were “thrown out of work” when the Thai government banned logging in 1989.
Many of these retrenched elephants subsequently landed jobs in conservation camps, charming tourists and putting on a daily show. Although the elephants gather daily at the camp for their work, in reality, each elephant is “owned” by a family. They are considered the family pet. An elephant can live some 70-80 years, about the lifespan of a man. When an elephant has an offspring, it is given to the young man in the family, so that man and elephant can live and age together.
An elephant consumes some 200-250kg of food daily. Without the camp “jobs”, many families cannot afford to sustain the elephants and resort to begging in towns. Elephants at the camp work from about 8am to 1pm daily seven days and then spend the rest of the daylight hours foraging in the forest for food with their owners. Now for some pictures:
The day starts with some feeding by visiting tourists. Tourists buy sugar cane and bananas and handfeed them to the elephants.
And then it’s time for his bath, and they all troop down to the river for a good scrub down, and have some fun with passersby.
And then there’s the elephant show, where they raise a flag, play the harmonica, dance, play football and basketball, paint, roll over, and then show us a bit of how they used to work.
Finally, there are the elephant rides. Tourists are strapped onto specially crafted seats on the elephant’s back, whilst the mahout rides on the elephant head.