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The Plight of the Asian Elephant

Try and find it on Google Maps and you will not have any luck. Ban Tathit is a small village in the south of the Surin province of Thailand. The province of Surin is known for its dry weather, poverty, silk production, jasmine rice, and, of course, elephants. Surin is one of the few places in the world where elephants walking down the street in the villages remains commonplace.

This is not a typical place for tourists to frequent. To reach the village, it is a seven-hour train commute from Bangkok followed by an hour-long drive. This took longer for us as, during the season of the rice harvest, most of the highways are down to one lane with the precious grains drying in the other. Most of the residents of the villages in Surin commute via scooter or motorbike; if they are lucky enough to afford this.

Elephants are the national symbols of Thailand and have been an integral part of Thai culture and Buddhism for many centuries. They are revered as sacred animals, and their symbolism can be found in all aspects of Thai culture and history. The Thai elephant (chang thai) is endangered much like the elephants in other parts of Asia and Africa. Habitat loss, reduced food availability, poaching, the ivory trade, warfare, and the tourism (yes, tourism) are only a few of the challenges that have negatively affected the population and health of these magnificent creatures. Globally, the elephant-human relationship has faced many ups and downs throughout history and Thailand is no exception to this.

These elephants have been domesticated for centuries, so to only say, “why can’t we just release them back to the wild?” is like asking why your corgi puppy who attends doggy daycare cannot hang out in a boreal forest with a wolf-pack. Having an elephant as part of the family is highly revered in Thai society. Mahouts have been taught the art of elephant handling from their ancestors. To be a mahout is to bring honour to the family, and indeed most families that have elephants in Ban Tathit treat them as part of the household. Owning an elephant is a sign of prosperity and status. It is not unusual for a family to have more photos of their elephants than their children incorporated into the décor of their homes.

Behind the scenes, owning an elephant is a full-time job. Elephants eat everything; consistently. To avoid having an elephant eating vegetation that is part of a farmer’s crop, another animal’s habitat, raised with pesticide or purely decorative means that these elephants need to have access to bamboo; and plenty of it.  Planting, cutting, and transporting this vegetation need lots of time and effort. To attend to this means the mahouts, who are often also farmers and need to offer for their families, have to take time away from their crops and other means of providing for the family’s needs.

Like many animals, there was once a time when elephants were utilised for farming and other tasks that allowed the Thai people to give food or increase their prosperity. Predictably, since the industrial revolution reached Thailand, machines have filled this need. In 1989 the utilisation of elephants for logging became illegal in Thailand thanks to the elephant conservation efforts of her Majesty Queen Sirikit of Thailand. Although meant to improve the quality of life of the domestic elephants, it also made the elephant more obsolete in day-to-day life.

Although meant to improve the quality of life of the domestic elephants, it also made the elephant more obsolete in day-to-day life. Today, these amazing animals cannot give to the family economics, but still, need resources for their subsistence. With a lifespan of over 50 years when domesticated, a family must make a long, multi-generational commitment to the animal. If the family is unable to fill their basic needs, they are most likely unable to do this for their beloved elephant. This led to the neglect, trade, and mistreatment of the domesticated elephants.

Street elephants are commonplace in most major cities in Thailand. Although an amazing site to see, this practice is discouraged and often illegal. Street elephants are forced by their owners to live and work in an urban environment. The elephant is forced to do tricks for people’s entertainment. There are some issues with taking an elephant out of its natural habitat and bringing into a concrete jungle.  The feet of the elephant are not used to the hot, black, pavement since they typically would walk among the vegetation in the rainforests without potentially sharp metal, curbs, and rubbish. Traffic accidents can also cause injury to humans and elephants alike.

Remember how elephants eat everything? Ingestion of rubbish or pesticides is incredibly harmful to the digestive system of the elephant. Heat exhaustion and dehydration can be problematic, as the elephant requires a clean, plentiful source of water as well as occasional shade. Elephants are also not used to the air pollution of the major cities, and this can be damaging to their respiratory systems. Apparently, elephants are not born knowing how to allow humans to ride them. They have to be trained from a young age through harsh discipline.  The bright lights and strange noises can also be confusing to an elephant, which can also be hazardous to them and the humans around them.

There are many amazing and humane programs in Southeast Asia where one can get up close and personal with these amazing endangered animals without supporting illegal or unethical industries. The Bamboo Project Thailand is one such organisation with some volunteer opportunities including the elephant project we participated in. The Bamboo Project aims to help both elephants and the communities they are in by educating tourists and mahouts alike on the humane, ethical, and sustainable practices of caring for the domesticated elephants while respecting their traditional beliefs and culture. The organisation does not support riding elephants or street elephants but does recognise that there is a distinct financial part required to support the quality of life of humans and animals alike. I appreciated this realistic and respectful way of approaching the controversial issue that is the relationship between elephants and people.

With this organisation, we were able to make small contributions to mahouts, families, and elephants in Ban Tathit while having the experience of a lifetime. By assisting with cutting and planting bamboo, it freed up time for the mahouts to devote to other tasks such as farming.  We “walked” the elephants to the water and took them for a swim about three times a week. The mahouts are compensated by the Bamboo Project. Who gave us this incredible experience. By providing the mahouts with elephant friendly ways of making money, this reduces the need for the mahout to use their elephant in city streets to profit from tourists.

As participants, we also spent a lot of money on potato crisps, (Thailand has amazing flavours) and ice cream at the corner store. To put the economic situation into perspective, what one person in our group spent on ice cream in a four-day period was equal to the monthly income of some Thai workers after taxes. The economic contribution in the community can help reduce poverty making life better for the humans and animals alike. We were also able to help with the rice harvest, teaching English, and canine care.

The elephants in this village appear in great condition and seem jubilant and healthy. They are even starting to become a bit pampered; they now pick off the best green bamboo leaves instead of eating the whole thing! The elephants in the community are reproducing healthy babies on a relatively regular basis.  Once you learn about how long and tedious an elephant pregnancy is, you realise this is a rarity!

We were incredibly lucky that our time visiting Ban Tathit and Surin City coincided with the Elephant Festival, the annual Elephant Round Up, and the River Festival. As I saw the unhealthy street elephants walking around in Surin City, I made a mental note that none of the elephants, families, or mahouts I saw was from Ban Tathit. It may not make a huge dent in the massive issue that is the mistreatment of elephants in Asia, however, for that village, it meant they did not have to resort to these practices to support their families and their elephants. For the elephants and families of Ban Tathit, the Bamboo Project is making a difference.


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