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Young Elephant Training Center

HOW MANY TIMES is the word "trunk" used in our English language -- main trunk line, baggage trunk, swimming trunks, telephone trunk call - are but some. There is even the song "Nellie the Elephant Packed her Trunk and said Good-bye to the Circus". This article is not so much about Nellie the Elephant, or a Circus, but about elephants in general and how they are trained so that they are integrated into everyday part of Thai life.

Elephants -- sometime are regarded purely as "beasts of burden" although this is neither strictly correct nor very kind. True, they can carry or haul heavy loads but they also can be warriors, royal pets, trekking transporter and entertainers. It all depends upon their training. So, if you love elephants (and doesn't just about everyone?) and would like to see something of their "school", then the Young Elephant Training Center, near Lampang, is a must visit.

At the Young Elephant Training Center, when an elephant is born, he (or she) remains with the mother for the first three years of life. By the way, the gestation period for an elephant is 21-23 months -- our lady readers will sympathize! Then, in July of the year of the youngster's third birthday, it's off to school. Just like us human folk, Mom Elephant may not want her baby to leave, and the little one may be reluctant to attend school. But, for everyone's benefit, it has to be done. Mom must return to her own work routine and "baby" must be educated for his future life career.

The elephant school semester runs from June until February, the following year, and the young pupil will attend five days per week. Each school day morning will see the trainees being rounded up from the forest where they have spent the night. Lead by their Trainer "Mahouts" they are brought to the river or pond and, upon the learned order "lie", will drop to a comfortable position for their grooming. The Mahout will energetically scrub his charge free of any dust and debris from the forest (the elephant will obligingly spray water from his trunk) until the "toilette" is complete and then, well refreshed and breakfasted, our pupil is ready for lessons.

Each elephant is trained in ten basic subjects for their future working career (which will last for about 40 years) and to respond to the commands from their mahout. Kneel, push, pull, move left, move right -and so it goes on. The mahout is an integral part of the elephant's training, and future career, because he will remain with his charge until the elephant reaches "pension" age and is retired back to the forest. Initially, there are two mahouts with each elephant; one will be an apprentice (also learning!) and the other will be a journeyman mahout who becomes a lifelong work-partner and friend to the elephant. As can be imagined, a special empathy develops between elephant and mahout but it is a slow, gentle and patient process. Many hours (sometimes days) of gentle persuasion can be spent before the elephant even permits its mahout to sit astride its neck.

School holidays, when the young elephants go back to the forest for relaxation, interspace the years of steady training. Until, after nine years, our pupil is no longer a "baby" and is ready for graduation as a fully trained, working elephant.

After leaving the Young Elephant Training Center, the elephants are sent to their employment in different parts of Thailand. Hauling and extracting logs, from areas where machines cannot access, is an important aspect of an elephant's working career, however, it is not the only one. You may see elephants at work pulling farm equipment or drawing a four-wheeled cart in a rural town. A mature, working elephant can comfortably lift 700 kilograms weight or haul two tons of timber for one kilometer without a break. Naturally all this energy output requires a lot of food input so our former-pupil will now be demolishing an average of 200 kilograms of food per day and sucking up 120 liters of water with which to wash it down. It's a lot to have on one's shopping list!

The Elephant -Noble Creature -- intelligent, strong, sure footed, dexterous, hardworking and patient -beloved by so many of us humans around the world. Even Canada's ex-Premier, Pierre Trade, authored a book, "There's an Elephant in My Bed" -'though I think he was referring to his gigantic, neighboring nation rather than anything else!

There are several Working Elephant Camps around Chiangmai but there is only one Young Elephant Training Center, in Haang Chaat district, close to Lampang city where you can see them as young pupils learning about life and their future career. Go visit them -- it's an endearing and rewarding experience which you're sure to enjoy.

To get there: Drive about 70 kilometers south of Chiang Mai towards Lampang is the Thai Elephant Conservation Center located in Baan Tung Kwien (Thoong Gwian), Hang Chat District. Here there are two daily morning shows start at 09.30, and 11.30 with an extra show on Saturday & Sunday 13.30. The famous elephant hospital is also located here. Tel. (054) 229042.

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