A Thai children’s song titled, ‘Chang’, (Elephant) is probably the very first song most Thai parents sing to their kids as they teach them how to sing, www.youtube.com/watch?v=2yoLXBiLkPA (you tube).
The lyrics ask if the child has ever seen an elephant. Then they go on to describe the elephant’s physical features such as tusks and trunk as it explains the attributes of this magnificent giant of an animal.
The country’s most loved animal has a deep bond with Thai social and cultural roots evident in ancient history. The enduring relationship between humans and elephants can be spotted in Thai daily life events today.
At the kindergarten, children are taught the Thai alphabet by pairing the different sounds to different objects. The 10th letter in the Thai alphabet is Cho Chang [ช], representing a ‘ch’ sound paired to the word ‘Chang’ to help children memorise the letter. Chang is also a common Thai nickname.
Historical records show that elephants in Thailand have been domesticated since the Sukhothai Kingdom dating back to the 13th century and are commonly referred to as a symbol of power.
They were used to transport royalty on special occasions. The image of a white elephant was first featured on the Royal Naval Flag dating back to 1817 during the reign of King Rama II. In 1851, King Rama IV designated the white elephant emblem as the national flag.
Beyond the auspicious symbolism linked to the royal institution, the elephant is portrayed in Buddhism traditions and history. Images of elephant king named PhyaChattan, one of the Buddha’s incarnations before being born as Siddhartha, are featured on murals in many Thai temples.
Also, through the influence of Hinduism, statues of elephants are commonly found in spirit houses in household gardens. Images of elephants also appear on some banknotes and as part of the logo of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. The Thai government also declared the 13th of March as Thai National Elephant Day to revive and strengthen the cultural interest and connection with elephants that dates back centuries.
But the world has dramatically changed for the Thai elephant in captivity as visitors question welfare practices, circus tricks and look for a more meaningful experience to replace the out-of-favour elephant rides.
In the real world, beyond the ancient symbolism, there are signs that the wild elephant population is regrouping and expanding once more in protected national parks where conservation measures have improved. Wild elephants can be spotted in 69 National Parks across the country, according to the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation The population nationally stands at around 3,500, with the biggest concentration in the western forest reserves of Khao Yai-Dong Phayayen, PhuKhieo – Nam Nao and Kaeng Krachan.
Meanwhile, the captive elephant population registered with the Department of Livestock Development stands at around 3,700. The welfare of the domestic elephant is being revisited.
As practices come under review, the domestic elephant’s role also needs to adapt to a kinder version of tourism that encourages visitors to interact with the elephant and understand its daily life and needs.
Both wild and domestic elephants are protected. The country adopted a law to preserve wild elephants back in the early 1900s after logging was banned, and today, stakeholders are working together to improve laws to protect domesticated elephants and improve their welfare. A new animal welfare law and a ‘National Elephant Care Master Plan’ have been drafted and is now awaiting government approval.
Captive elephants require constant human care to survive. This is evident in the emerging elephant care trend in tourism that promotes a clearer understanding of the bond between elephants and humans and illustrates how they rely on each other.
In Thailand, there are elephant conservation parks where visitors can observe the interaction between humans and elephants and learn how these majestic animals are treated with care, love, and respect. There has been a major shift in emphasis over the years from elephants entertaining us to an educational and inspirational experience that explores the bond between humans and elephants.
Here are examples of parks that provide an environment that delivers a meaningful and rewarding experience for visitors that will enrich their understanding of Thailand’s elephants.
RECOMMENDED REGIONAL ELEPHANT EXPERIENCES
IN OUR REGION
Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand: Bears, gibbons, macaques and birds are cared for with an elephant rescue program where elephants live out their lives chain-free and unridden. The foundation is located at in Phetchaburi Province. See: www.wfft.org
Kui Buri National Park: This is the best park in Thailand to see wild elephants. The main activity is the safari drive with stops at the lookouts. If you love to see elephants in the wild, this is the place to go!
OTHER ELEPHANT SANCTUARIES IN THAILAND
The Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC) in Lampang
Kanta Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai
Patara Elephant Farm in Chiang Mai
Samui Elephant Sanctuary
Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai