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Thailand's Talented Elephants

Elephants are an important part of Thai culture and the Thai way of life. They are a traditional symbol of royal power, an essential feature of Buddhist art and architecture, an a spiritual mentor for people of all walks of life. In the early part of this century, elephants roamed freely and in multitude throughout Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Prior to the 18th century they were the main machine of Southeast Asian war, a Thai king of the late 17th century having had 20,000 war elephants trained for battle. Elephants in Thailand have always been a symbol of both power and peace. They have always performed the most exacting physical tasks. And they have always been well loved.

The number of elephants in Thailand today is limited to about 2,600. Most of these are at various elephant camps around the country where they learn to work in the forests and mountains and to entertain the hundreds of thousands of people who go to see them each year, and where they live, play and reproduce in a setting that is as close to the wild as possible.

Here we present some of the many traditional roles the elephant has played in Thailand since the days of old Siam. The elephant is acknowledged as having many wide attributes, and perhaps the most obvious is talent. Talent for a stately presence, for delicate foot movement and agility, for intelligence on the field of sport, and at the same time a particular gentleness that makes the elephant not only a highly respected creature of the land but also one that is appreciated and loved.

The White Elephant has always been an important symbol of royal power in Thailand. It originated in ancient India, where the multi headed elephant of the Vedic god was white and where, in one of the Buddhist Jataka Tales, Vessantara (Buddha) gave a white state elephant to a drought-stricken people because it was believed to have the power to bring rain. In Southeast Asian kingdoms, the white elephant has traditionally represented divine royal power. The number of white elephants held by a king largely determined his power in the eyes of regional adversaries, and the white elephant was the featured emblem of the national flag of Siam until the name of the country was changed to Thailand.

fighting elephants The role of elephants in warfare was always of paramount importance in Siam and the older kingdoms of Southeast Asia. They were the main form of transport to and from the battlefield, and they constituted the main force of an army. Serving the same purpose as a horse cavalry in the west, the number of manned elephants for warfare often determined the ultimate winner of the war. This feature of War Elephants was most renowned in the 300-year-war between Burma and Thailand which resulted in Burma's sacking of Ayutthaya in 1767. Today, elephant war tactics are recreated at a number of Thailand's elephant training centers. Called the "Kraal Paniad", staged battles on elephant-back are an astounding display of elephants' innate talent and ability to learn.

Elephant Racing is one of many sports the elephants engage in here in Thailand. Races were actually part of the elephant war training in old Siam, where the elephants were lined up and on command charged. Today, elephants are taught the delicate steps and maneuvers of such tactics in order to recreate the battle scenes of the " Kraal Paniad". These races and accompanying tactics require the elephant to learn and respond to more than 60 separate commands. On the signal to take off, the elephants begin a stampede, and this quickly turns into a rhythmic, flowing ballet on the dust. The elephants are fast and as they gather momentum the race becomes an elegant performance of step, turn and curve.

elephant on a stool Elephants have a special talent for sports. They have their own games in the privacy of the forest and are often very competitive, but they play sports they are taught too. One of these is a competitive race on an obstacle course, where each elephant is required to pick up various items along the way, hold these with his trunk, and return them to the finish line . In one of Thailand's elephant training centers, the objects are Coke bottles . Another sport the elephants are taught to play is elephant football. In this game the elephants toss around a rather large ball,using their trunks and competing to see who can score the highest. These are fun sports for the elephant and require a little more thought than their traditional water games of spraying themselves and others.

caravan The Elephant Caravan is a very special trained function of the elephant in Thailand. A long line of elephants with their packs and their passengers can travel over any terrain, however steep and treacherous. This was the most efficient form of land transport in Thailand until the arrival of the railway and the automobile, and in the jungle and mountain areas today is still the most desirable and the safest way to go. Elephants in a caravan have broad wooden seats strapped onto their backs and tied with heavy rope. Passengers and goods sit on these seats while the mahout, or trainer, rests on the elephant's neck and guides him a long. An elephant caravan can consist of any number of elephants, and they all stay together because they like the company of their own kind.

tog-o-war Tug-o'-War is one of the elephants' favorite games played with another species, man. Apparently very fond of competition, and all the more so when pitted against their trainers, elephants are extremely stubborn when it comes to push and pull. In Tug-'o-War, they demonstrate their true physical power in a way that leaves no one in doubt. It takes more than 70 men to bring one elephant to a draw in a Tug-o'-War contest. Some of Thailand's training centers stage the same competition with men on horseback, and in this case one elephant requires six or seven competitors to give him a real battle.

elephant trek A Trek is something most of us think of as a walk or a hike on foot, and while this is true many of northern Thailand's treks include at least part of the journey by elephant. This is similar to the caravan, and trekkers always find the ride on those wooden seats a bit more physically demanding than they thought possible. But the experience is one of a kind. The elephants travel dense jungle area on a trek. They climb steep hills of mud and earth, traverse ledges between tree lines and hillside drops, and all the while sway back and forth in their efforts to maintain balance. Seldom will an elephant become afraid in terrain like this. What will scare him is a car, a truck, or a helicopter overhead, but not the jungle. All you have to do is hold on to your seat. It's fun.

shaking trunk Elephants, like people, place a high value on friendship. In any elephant group the elephants tend to pair up and stay very close together with their friends. They have their likes and dislikes, of course, but in a caravan or on a trek for example, the mahouts have to take special care in lining up the elephants before departure. They are placed one behind the other so that friends are together. If an elephant is placed apart from his friend, he will likely refuse to budge and the caravan will not move. Elephant friendship becomes most obvious when the female is about ready to give birth. She searches out her friend and solicits help in delivery. This the friend does willingly, and even helps separate the placenta from the newborn baby.

dancing Dance is a rare talent but onto the elephants sees to have a certain knack for. They're intelligent, nimble and have a natural sway to their walk, but most of all they love music. In Thailand, elephants are trained to perform dance routines to various numbers in the rock, jazz and folk categories. Their trainers line them up and when the music begins they receive the command to start. They sway and prance to the rhythm, trunks swinging, feet keeping time with the beat, and heads swaying to and fro. When the music changes, they're steps change with it, perhaps from a fast tempo to a slow, melancholy waltz. The elephant's preference for music and talent for dance should not surprise us; music is how the great circuses of the world train their elephants to perform.

logging Logging is the vocation of the majority of Thailand's elephants today. This is the trade they're taught at the country's various elephant camps and it's a trade they like. It's a useful economic contribution in the many forested areas of the country where elephants have proven to be much more efficient than tractors and cables. Elephants are trained for 20 years before they're ready to work as full, independent and experienced loggers. At the age of 20 they begin their 35-year career of work, and at 55 or 60 they retire. During the working day, they have their regular work hours, their lunch hour, and their rest periods. The ease with which an elephant can pick up a log and move it almost anywhere demonstrates how powerful this creature is. You can view this and the many other talents of the elephant at any of Thailand's elephant training centers.

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