Bluffer's Guide to Elephants in Thailand

There's an old Thai proverb - don't help the elephant to carry his tusks - but perhaps this needs updating for the modern age. Thailand's elephants are in crisis. They were once so beloved by the Thais that a white elephant in ceremonial dress featured on the country's flag. Now, just as the elephant has lost its place on the flag, it has lost its place in the modern life of Thailand too.

What's changed in Thai culture is that there's no longer a lush habitat for wild elephants thanks to deforestation, and the traditional roles for domesticated elephants are eroding due to legislation and mechanisation. Traditionally elephants were domesticated and used to help with heavy work, just as British farmers would have used a pair of oxen or a carthorse. Thai families often kept an elephant as a useful companion animal and a major contributor to the family's income. At the turn of the last century there were approximately 100,000 domesticated elephants helping in farming and the logging industry.

In the 1980s Thailand's logging industry was booming and many families took their domesticated elephants to work hauling heavy teak logs to be exported or used in making furniture. Then, in 1988 disaster struck. Thailand experienced its worst flooding in nearly a century: 350 people died and 120 million dollars worth of property was lost. The damage was exacerbated by deforestation and in a bold move, a couple of months after the floods the Thai government banned logging completely. Suddenly, hundreds of loggers were redundant. So too were thousands of elephants.

Many traditional elephant handlers or mahouts saw no option other than to take their elephants to the city to earn an income. The owner or handler makes money by forcing the elephants to perform tricks for people's entertainment - many of them Western tourists. They also sell over priced bananas which tourists can feed to the animals. Of course it's tempting to be able to interact with an elephant up close and many tourists think they're helping the elephants by providing them with food, but the street elephants suffer terribly. Many get injured by broken glass and metal while they wait, often tethered, on rubbish dumps and waste land until the evening's entertainment starts.

Even when these elephants can be rescued, turning them out into the wild isn't an easy option either. With the forests destroyed by logging and the floods they can't support a large population of elephants as they could in the past, so hungry elephants venture out at night in packs to eat crops from the fields. Farmers are understandably upset about this and many get together to protect their land, resulting in the bloody deaths of many hungry elephants. No longer is the elephant seen by farmers as a useful work animal but as a predator who damages livelihoods.

It's a sad story - not one to put you in a holiday mood - but here's where the fairytale ending begins. Many elephants have been rescued by nature lovers and one such saviour is Sangduen Chailert, better known as Lek (meaning 'small one').

elephant eye chiang mai

Lek remembers the time before the deforestation when elephants were still loved and revered. "My grandfather had an elephant to help him with farming chores. Thongkhum (golden one) was his name and he was like a member of the family. I've loved them ever since. Their keen family bonds, individual personalities and kindness are only part of the reason. It takes a stone heart for those lucky enough to work with elephants not to love them.'

"Bath-time is a highlight.
Where else can you make sure elephants wash behind their ears?"

Lek's rescued elephants live at the Elephant Nature Park in Northern Thailand, some Tell Tale trips include time there helping the conservation staff and their mahouts look after them.

Elephant Nature Park is unlike many other wildlife parks. You'll get up close to the elephants but only on their terms. You won't be offered a ride on an elephant. You're there to care for the elephants, to pander to their whims and help them by providing food, watching them play and giving them a bath in the river. Here, nothing is staged for the visitors. There are no demonstrations of strength or working ability, no rides or treks and no displays of musical or artistic talent. At this peaceful and inspirational sanctuary, it's all about elephants being elephants. And it couldn't be more entertaining.

As Lek says, "If you are interested in an unforgettable and moving elephant experience, if you would rather walk beside an elephant than ride on top of one, then Elephant Nature Park is the ideal place to visit."

Tell Tale travellers agree. "From having never seen an elephant in your life to assisting in the care of one is both a brilliant and a brave thing to do. Even just for a couple of days of your holiday, it's extremely rewarding and fun. Elephants are gentle creatures but you've got to be prepared to get stuck in and help out.

"Bath-time is a highlight of everyone's day. Where else can you follow a herd of elephants into a river and help scrub them down? Make sure they wash behind their ears? Okay, so you may get a bit muddy too but it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Elephants seem to get more playful in the river, squirting everyone with water as you wash them down."

Tell Tale Tip Experience a couple of days at the Elephant Nature Park on some of our private tours, including our family wildlife holiday, or if you are really mad about elephants, join us on Elephant Steps, which spends 5 days at the Elephant Nature Park, 3 days at another conservation centre and lots of other exciting activities and relaxation too.

Fun Elephant facts:
  • The Thai word for elephant is Chang, now a name of a popular beer
  • The elephant is recognised as the national animal of Thailand
  • A baby elephant is carried in the womb for almost 2 years!
  • March 13 is National Thai Elephant Day

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elephants in thailand
family playing with elephants elephants at the elephant nature park