They say an elephant never forgets, do the animals alive today remember carrying the Thai Kings into battle? Do they remember a time when they roamed freely through the wildness of Siam, through the ‘land of the white elephant’? A male, with his five ton frame, flaps his ears to rid himself of flies, eyes us with his amber stare, he rattles the chains around his foot and chews on sugarcane, blinking in the sun. His story and Thailand’s history are inextricably entwined.
In Thailand the elephant is a royal beast, a work-horse and a cash cow, its image gracing everything from the Navy flag to the local beer, popping up in ancient proverbs and superstitions encouraging good fortune. They are sacred to the Thai people, not as gods but as the backbone on which their kingdom was built and protected. Elephants are revered and lauded but in many cases the idea of the elephant does not pay any heed to the welfare of the individual. Merit makers will wei to the elephant outside the temple in reverence without the thought that it may well have been chained there, in full sun, all day.
Do elephants do well in captivity?
Many of us have pets. Our dogs have been derived from wolves over the centuries in a gradual process of domestication. They are obedient, patient and loyal because it is in their blood, we have shaped them. Elephants however, do not breed well in captivity, and so, to feed the ongoing need for young animals they must constantly be taken from the wild. They are not domesticated, they are tamed; their spirit broken to gain placidity. Naturally a herd animal, they are often kept in isolation and solitude which, for such an intelligent creature, is akin to torture.
How many captive elephants are there in Thailand?
In a little over a century the numbers of captive elephants in Thailand has plummeted from in excess of 100,000 to just under 4,000. The ban on logging in 1989 saw many mahuts and owners turning to tourism to make their animals pay their way, and with no legislation for animal welfare in place, they were not seen as anything other than a mere possession, many of the animals were grossly mistreated. During the pandemic, with its abrupt cessation of the tourist dollar, captive elephants have suffered immensely, their mahuts often resorting to long treks back to their hometowns and relying on handouts in order to keep their animals fed.
The glimmer of hope, however, is the spotlight that this has shone on the plight of the captive elephants here in Thailand, many stories have drawn global attention, with several traditional elephant camps vowing to throw away the riding seats and find kinder, more ethical ways with which to attract people and care for their elephants. A growing social conscience is enabling sanctuaries to entice tourists without the expectation of anything other than seeing elephants roaming freely. A growing proportion of the paying public no longer wish to see elephants in chains or ride around in circles, three or four up on each burdened beast.
Can elephants roam free in Thailand? Can elephants be released back into the wild after being captive for so long?
The Asian elephant, having never been properly domesticated, having never had its bloodlines tampered with by human selective breeding, is ideally suited to being reintroduced back into the wild. A large percentage of captive elephants in the kingdom are regularly taken out, their feet chained, through the jungle at night to forage for food and they therefore know what to eat, how to deal with the terrain and where to find water. They are the perfect candidate for release from captivity, an ideal candidate for releasing back into the wild.
That said, it’s not as easy as just setting them all free. The structure of the herd must be carefully planned, elephant’s are naturally matriarcal so an older female is released first followed by younger females with young calves to help strengthen the social bonds and hierarchy within the herd. Most importantly, though, they must be released into a safe environment where they won’t be at risk of re-capture or being poached. It is vital that they are kept within the safe haven of carefully policed and ethical sanctuaries.
In order for sanctuaries to be successful, as well as being able to attract tourists, they must also work with the neighboring communities. Educating the younger generation, who are not used to the body language of wild elephants, as their grandparents and great grandparents might have been, to spot the danger signs of aggressive or defensive behavior; to encouraging thick, bamboo barricades over electric fences and carefully selecting suitable places in which to open their sites. The wild population of elephants in Thailand has seen a growth of 7% over the last 15 years, which is a promising start.
As with most things in life these days, money talks. It is the driving factor for survival. The more people seek out ethical sanctuaries for Thailand’s elephants, the stronger the message will be that this is the way forward for the rest of this kingdom's noble animals. Where can I see elephants in Thailand? If you’d like to find out more about visiting an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand you can read more here.