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What I didn't know about Elephants?

Before coming to Thailand all I knew of elephants were what I had seen of them in zoos, giant slow moving animals, magnificent to look at. They stood around majestically, mostly swaying from side to side, sometimes lifting their trunks, and, every now and then, if you were fortunate enough to be there at the right time, they might push a log they were given to play with, with their trunks. Only a few lucky people ever got to experience the excitement of being up close to an elephant and actually touching one. Until my visit to an elephant camp here in Thailand, I was one of those many Americans who had only seen an elephant from afar. After I had the privilege of visiting an elephant camp, and actually getting to ride, feed, and watch them play soccer, did I realize they have personality plus!!!! Ever since then, I have been accused of having Elephantitus. (Elephant on the brain)

Here in Chiangmai and neigboring provinces, we are so fortunate to have access to several elephant camps, among them being the National Elephant Institute. The National Elephant Institute (NEI) for elephant training is an institute in an immense park in Haang Chaat district of Lampang province that has elephant shows, a restaurant, overnight cottages, special tours such as "Mahout Training course", making paper from elephant "leftovers," and a hospital for severely injured elephants. In 1991 over 2,500 to 4,500 elephants were reported in Thailand to be in the wild, and over 4,500 in captivity. The National Elephant Institute is just one of the elephant centers in Thailand that are working to preserve the number of these magnificent animals. Khun Plai, a test tube elephant, the first of her kind, will be celebrating her first birthday this year. Happy Birthday Khun Plai

This project is the first in the world to succeed in producing frozen semen using biological technology to freeze elephant semen for between 20 and 30 years for artificial insemination purposes. Currently, there is a frozen bank of "good-breed" semen, which can lose up to 30 percent of its strength if kept for too long.

The NEI cares for over 100 elephants, and feeding is an enormous task along with handling the daily cost. The Thai people are fantastic at taking things you and I would throw away (elephant dung) and making beautiful things from It. They make a great paper that can be used to wrap gifts, or used as decorative pages in scrapbooking. This paper looks a lot like mulberry paper and the sales help to run the institute.

African and Asian elephants are very intelligent animals. However, because the Asian elephant has two frontal lobes in their brains, the extra lobe gives them more intelligence than their African cousin, and the ability to be more easily trained. These adorable animals can learn as many as 60 commands. Therefore, Asian elephant projects an image of power, intelligence and gentleness. No wonder Siam chose the Asian elephant as their national symbol.

We often call the Elephant the gentle giant, but we should be ever mindful that Elephants are wild animals, and can exhibit behavior you should be aware of when around them, such as:

Elephants have small eyes and are near sighted, and are alert to sounds and smell, never use a flash camera around an elephant, the flash can startle them and they charge in that direction.

During the mating season be very careful around an elephant. The glands behind an elephant's ears secrete oil that has a pungent aroma which attracts mates. The oil flows down the cheeks and into their mouths. When the male elephant tastes this oil his animal instinct takes over, and has been known to rape an unwilling female elephant!

There is such a thing as a "Mad" elephant. They are born that way, and if you should ever encounter one, you can tell by his black toe nails and evil eyes! You will notice him staring at the earth without blinking, and moving his eyes from one side to the other. These "Mad" elephants will charge at anything within 20 meters, and ignore things farther away. If you find yourself too close, watch him silently, move backwards slowly, and look for a big tree for protection.

You should also watch out for wounded elephants and pregnant elephants ready to give birth. They will smash anything in their path. The pregnant elephants look for a "midwife" to protect them and their calf. Be mindful of the fact that both can be very dangerous as they protect the baby elephant.

I would be remiss in my duty as a writer writing about elephants if I did not mention the cherished "White Elephant." White elephants are always given to the King. The main qualifications for being the envied white elephant are: he must have seven colors on his body: white, yellow, green, red, black, purple ad steel grey; white eyes and white toe nails, (20 in all, two more than the regular elephant); have white or light grey skin, be fragrant-smelling, and not snore nosily.

The white elephants are part of many legends, one of the more famous surrounds Doi Suthep.

"A monk from Sri Langka named Sumanathera from Sukhothai dreamed god told him to go to Paang Ja, a ruined city, and look for a relic. Sumanathera went to Paang Ja and is said to have found a bone, which was claimed was Buddha's shoulder bone. This relic displayed magical powers; it glowed, it was able to vanish, it could move itself and replicate itself. Sumanathera took the relic to King Dharmmaraja who ruled the Sukhothai. The relic did not perform for King Dharmmaraja, and he turned the monk away.

However, King Gue Na of the Lanna Kingdom heard of the relic and offered the monk to bring it to him instead. In 1368 with Dharmmaraja's permission, Sumanathera took the relic to what is now Lamphun, in northern Thailand. The relic apparently split in two, one piece was the same size; the other was smaller than the original. The smaller piece of the relic was enshrined at a temple in Suandawg. The other piece was placed by the King on the back of a white elephant which was released in the jungle. The elephant is said to have climbed up Doi Suthep, at the time called Doi Aoy Chang (Sugar Elephant Mountain), trumpeted three times before dying at the site. It was interpreted as a sign and King Gue Na ordered the construction of a temple at the site."

I fell in love with elephants during my first trip to Thailand. Everywhere I look, Thai artisans portray elephants in their many forms of art here in Thailand, elephants playing, laughing, spraying water, loving as warriors, Thai religious symbols, and even Thai cartoons. Enjoy these beautiful animals at the Lampang's National Elephant Institute. Watch them perform with balls, harmonicas, and paint brushes. It is a sight that gives the elephants a human trait, and helps us bond to them.

As mentioned earlier the healthy elephants bring in about twenty million Baht per year through the Mahout Training School, homestay and souvenir sales. Hundreds of visitors sign up for the Mahout training 3-day training course. Hopeful mahouts of all nationalities and ages lean how to bathe the elephant, train in Karen language commands, and wander with the elephant in the forest while it feeds on about 250 kilograms of forage. On the third day of the training course, the mahout can appear in the live performance with the elephant.

Some visitors are a bit shaky about being too close to the elephants so they prefer to stay in the NEI homestay lodge at Baht 500 per night. They can hike in the national park or ride about on a bicycle.

Other ways the elephants earn money is by creating beautiful paintings that visitors eagerly buy for around Baht 2,000 each. The painting will have the name of the elephant, age of the elephant and the date of painting.

Please take note that March 13th is National Elephant Day (Wan Chaang Thai). Celebrate National Elephant Day by taking a trip to the National Elephant Institute in Lampang and bond with the elephants yourself. Take a few friends with you, and enjoy! To get there: Drive about 70 kilometers south of Chiangmai towards Lampang is the Thai Elephant Conservation Center located in Baan Tung Kwien (Thoong Gwian), Haang Chaat 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. THE NATIONAL ELEPHANT INSTITUTE (Head Office), 26 Tha Ma-O, T. Wiangnua, A. Muang, Lampang 52000. Tel : 054-228108, Fax : 054-321496; ELEPHANT TRAINING CENTER Haang Chaat, Lampang, Tel : 054-247871-6, Fax : 054-247872, 247876.

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