The elephant has long been connected with the prosperity of Thailand, a symbolic mascot – mighty in battle, indispensable in industry, present in ritual. It has been a part of the culture of the region for more than 3000 years. Without it, the impressive historic edifices of Sukhothai, Ayutthya and Angkhor Wat may not have been built. Certain heroic elephants were formerly awarded titles equivalent to the highest ranking royal officials.
Elephants are the largest land mammals, and can weigh 4 to 5 tons and eat around 200-250 kilograms of vegetation per day.
Despite their formidable aspect, they are gentle, intelligent creatures and share many characteristics with humans, like their much-loved marine counterparts, the dolphins. They are ‘social’ herd animals; older female elephants can assume a ‘midwife’ role with younger mothers, and in cases of rejection, can adopt and nurse calves. They grieve following the death of a member of the herd. They are communicative and playful. Domesticated elephants become bonded with their kwan chang (human attendants), communicate and play with them, and suffer enormous grief when separated from them.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed elephas maximus as an endangered species since 1986. Although the elephant population in Thailand was estimated at around 100,000 around the turn of the 20th century, it is now thought to be less than 5,000. Machines have taken over in farming, transport, construction and forestry industries. Shrinking habitat has caused the wild population to shrink accordingly. Poaching is also a problem.
In recent years the loss of work opportunities, and in particular the outlawing of logging in the 80s, has led to the problem of what to do with the large number of domesticated elephants and their kwan chang. Elephants which have been trained need regular, focused exercise, otherwise they fret, and descend into depression. Most are now employed in the tourism industry for ‘elephant trekking’ and circus-like entertainments. Their welfare is dependant on the moral scruples of entrepreneurs. Some are led by their kwan chang around the hard surfaces and dangerous traffic of city streets, begging from passers-by.