by Bret Le Rolland of WA
In January of 1996 I began a three month visit to the kingdom of Thailand. During my stay I spent time at the Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang while working on an independent study project through North Seattle Community College. My project concerned observing the impacts of elephant logging on forest flora. At the conservation center I collected plant samples from a logging area and brought them to the herbarium at Chiang Mai University for identification. In my travels I sought out elephants at work wherever I went, finding them in a variety of situations.
My interest in elephant logging stemmed from my experience with horse logging in the Northwestern part of the U.S. where horses are a low impact alternative for skidding felled trees from the forest. Horses are able to work in ecologically sensitive areas because they require narrower skid trails, cause less soil disturbance and generally result in less environmental and aesthetic impacts than machines. I was interested to see how these characteristics might translate to the use of elephants in the forest and elsewhere.
In Thailand, the role of the elephant as a work animal has diminished in recent years. In 1976 there were about 12,000 working elephants in Thailand. Current estimates put the number at about 5,000. In an increasingly modern world the number of Thai elephants continue to decrease, both in captivity and in the wild. However, they are far from being a sentimental fixture of the past. Elephants are still used extensively, particularly in more remote areas of the country. Whether performing in touristy elephant shows or working in tribal villages, the elephant is still being worked throughout Asia.
Following a century of exploitation only 16% of Thailand’s original forests remain intact. This devastation is evident throughout the forested regions of the country. The remnant of old-growth forest, with its towering teak trees and lush green undergrowth, stand in stark contrast to the degraded Dipterocarp-oak forest covering much of the mountainous north. A nation-wide logging ban was a drastic yet necessary measure to preserve and begin to restore Thailand’s forests. Now cutting is limited to very selective, government approved projects. When illegal logging operations are discovered, elephants are used by the government to harvest the illegally felled trees. For this purpose the Thai government has at its disposal perhaps the best cared for and most highly trained herd of work elephants on the planet.
Coincidentally shaped like an elephant’s head, Thailand is a country which reveres the elephant as a national symbol. The Thai affection for the elephant is an old and enduring connection with its roots in ancient Thai culture. Some of the fiercest elephant battles of all time took place between the Burmese and Thai armies. With the use of elephants, King Naresuan of Thailand was able to rout an invading Burmese army and secure the freedom of the kingdom. During the U.S. Civil War, the king of Siam wrote to President Lincoln, offering him 100 elephants with which he assured the president the war could be won.
The elephant’s image appears frequently in Asian art and mythology. Elephant icons adorn every Buddhist temple, and in Hindu mythology the elephant appears as the deity Lord Ganesh, the God of prosperity and wisdom and the bringer of luck. Its image can be seen in silver jewelry, on flags, and as the logo on the label of beer bottles. The elephant, called “chang” in Thai, has captivated the imagination of an entire culture.
The Asian Elephant (Elphas Maximus) is native to Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, India, Laos, Malaysia and Vietnam. The Asian Elephant is similar in appearance to its African cousin. Lorodonta Africana, a separate genus of the family Elephantidae. The Asian Elephant is smaller in stature, more intelligent, and is considerably more trainable and manageable. The head of the Asian Elephant is distinguishable from the African elephant by two lobes on its forehead and a trunk which comes to a single point, as well as smaller ears. Fully mature, the Asian Elephant can stand up to ten feet from the ground to the topmost point of the shoulders and may weigh up to 8,000 pounds. With rare exception, males have a pair of ivory tusks. On rare occasion, a female may possess a set of small tusks.
Herd animals by nature, elephants commonly roam in groups of five to ten with herds sometimes increasing in size to twenty or more. Elephant herds have a social hierarchy in which the strongest bull generally serves as leader. Due to enormous feed requirements, the herd wanders constantly in search of fodder, water and shelter. Although wild elephants used to be widely distributed, they now exist only within wildlife reserves. Their decline is due primarily to habitat reduction.
Researchers have recently discovered that elephants are able to communicate by generating subsonic vibrations which resonate at a frequency several decibels below the audible range of the human ear. This type of communication is used for what amounts to gentle chat between the animals. The trumpeting sounds that we associate with elephants are used to communicate danger, distress, or discomfort. While pulling a particularly heavy burden, elephants will sometimes let out a great grunt in the same way that a human would.
Elephants require three to four hours of sleep daily. Healthy elephants sleep lying on their side and those found sleeping while standing are presumed to be suffering from illness or injury. They spend most of their waking hours on their feet searching for food. Mature elephants consume 550 pounds of food per day. Elephants are herbivores, feeding on grasses, succulent plants, leaves, fruits, and tree bark. They eat almost constantly and will forage as they work, selecting their favorite edibles as they move through the forest. They require sixty gallons of drinking water daily. Elephants drink by sucking water into their trunks and then pumping it into their mouths. They will store water in their trunks for long periods of time and either drink it or spray it onto themselves at a later time for cooling. They breathe either through their mouth or through their trunk, which is equivalent to a human nose. However, their trunks have functionality extending well beyond breathing and drinking. The trunk serves as a tentacle-like arm or prehensile tail which can be coiled around objects and used to grasp them. During physical exertion, elephants perspire from the edge of their toenails. Working elephants are given a supplement of salt to replenish salts lost through perspiration.
Elephants are sexually active and able to mate between the ages of fifteen and forty years. “Musth” is the term used to indicate that an elephant is in heat. When elephants of either sex are in musth, the temporal glands above both cheeks swell and secrete a pungent, sticky fluid which serves to attract a mate. The smell of this secretion can be overwhelmingly strong, and small fires are sometimes built to provide a smoke screen around confined elephants in musth. During musth, otherwise well-mannered elephants can become unmanageable and even dangerously hostile towards humans. A number of human fatalities occur each year as a result. I was warned that if the secretions of musth find their way into the animal’s mouth, the danger of aggressive behavior is particularly high. A diet of green melons is said to be an aid in minimizing the occurrence of musth.
Elephants mate standing up, with the males climbing onto the back of the female and entering from the rear. Mating occurs year-round, but is more common during the cool winter months. A female elephant is able to produce between the ages of fifteen and fifty. The gestation period is 21-22 months. Pregnancy often goes undetected but may be indicated by swelling of the breasts and a less willing attitude towards work. Expectant mothers are often helped throughout the birthing process by another female elephant who attends to and protects the vulnerable newborn while its exhausted mother recovers her strength. The surrogate mother continues to help in the care and rearing of the baby elephant throughout its infancy. Baby elephants are breast-fed for a period of three years before they are weaned onto succulent grasses. A female may give birth three to four times during her life, with a period of at least three years between pregnancies.
Training of elephants begins at age four or five. For initial training, young elephants are placed within stout stocks where they are mounted and dismounted by their mahout (trainer), bathed, and taught to wear logging gear and hobbles. Here they also begin their introduction to a vocabulary of verbal commands, which they learn through positive reinforcement and reward. Elephants possess near-human intelligence and are quick learners. As their training progresses, elephants are taught to work successively at kneeling, bowing, picking things up, single and team dragging of logs, rolling, pushing, carrying, etc… Over time they are conditioned to work around noisy power equipment such as tractors and chain saws. They are also trained to be loaded onto trucks for transport to and from jobs. The training process takes place at a leisurely pace over the course of four years with animals fully trained by age nine or ten.
Elephants are considered to be in their working prime at age twenty-five and capable of highly productive work until age fifty, when endurance begins to decline. They are put to less strenuous work until age sixty, when they are retired. Amazingly long lived creatures, elephants will often live to one hundred years of age.
Pound for pound, an elephant is not able to perform as much work as a horse. A full grown elephant can haul a maximum weight of about 4,000 pounds, equivalent to approximately half of its bodyweight. A horse can pull loads equivalent to nearly two times its body weight for short durations. The lifting power of a bull tusker is limited to 1,400 pounds. Exceeding this limit puts the animals in jeopardy of breaking a tusk. Walking speed is comparable to that of a human, approximately four miles per hour.
For logging, elephants have the distinct advantage over horses of being able to stack logs. To accomplish this they use several means. Tuskers are able to use their tusk and trunk like a fork-lift to pick up logs and place them in stacks. They are also trained to lower their heads and scoot logs into position by pushing against the log with their trunks. Working elephants nimbly roll logs into position by pushing them with their feet. The agility of an elephant is astounding. Endowed with great balance and physical dexterity, elephants are able to walk the length of a narrow log and gracefully turn 180 degrees.
Mahout is the word used to describe an elephant trainer or driver. Ideally, mahouts work with a particular elephant for an entire lifetime. Depending primarily on verbal commands to control their elephants, mahouts also use a metal hook attached to a wooden handle which looks like a carpenter’s hammer. The hook is placed against the forehead and pressure is applied to the hide. The elephant moves away from the pressure and turns in the appropriate direction. Like the use of spurs or a buggy whip on a horse, this tool can be used with sensitivity or in a cruel and callous fashion. Perched atop the elephant’s neck, the mahouts use their feet to massage behind the elephant’s ear, regulating speed and direction.
Over the course of time, a strong bond develops between man and pachyderm. At the end of a day’s toil, an elephant will follow its mahout back to the village the way a puppy follows a young child. There was a story in the “Bangkok Times” about an elephant who had been found floating at sea by fishermen. The animal had accidentally injured its mahout and apparently was so ashamed of its actions that it swam out to sea in a suicide attempt. The elephant was retrieved and reunited with its mahout. Local Buddhist monks arrived and performed a ceremony to restore the animal’s spirit. For three days the elephant was fed a special diet of selected fruits and was visited by well-wishers from the local villages.
The Thai government maintains a herd of working elephants at the Elephant Conservation Center located near Lampang, Thailand. At the center, mahouts live in a village setting with the elephants that they train and care for. Traditionally, elephant handling is the sphere of men, however there are some women among the mahouts at the Elephant Conservation Center. Daily, a group of mahouts ride their elephants to a lakeside arena on the beautifully landscaped grounds of the Elephant Conservation Center to perform an elephant show. This show is unlike the other elephant shows which sometimes have a circus quality and can involve undignified stunts such as elephants playing harmonicas and dancing to disco music. Instead, this show highlights precision handling techniques used to train elephants in the skillful art of skidding, stacking, and rolling logs. An announcer narrates the show in both Thai and English, explaining training methods, care and feeding, and acknowledging the cultural significance of the elephant as national symbol of the Thai people. At the conclusion of the show, the elephants enthusiastically charge up to a wooden barrier separating them from the audience, and delighted tourists feed them bananas and sugar cane. The elephants also use their trunks to grab paper money out of the hands of the grateful tourists and pass the bills to their mahouts who are perched on the elephant’s necks.
The conservation center has its own animal hospital, which is perhaps the best and most advanced facility in the world for sick and injured elephants. Aside from caring for its own herd, the hospital treats elephants that are shipped in from all over the country. There are heart rendering stories of elephants rescued from abusive situations and brought to the center for treatment and rehabilitation. Tragically, elephants have suffered abominable cruelties at the hands of humans. The hospital has treated elephants for a variety of ailments including elephants who have been drugged with amphetamines and worked beyond exhaustion to the point of collapse.
The Elephant Conservation Center at Lampang is located adjacent to a vast teak plantation. The plantation is administered by the Forest Industries Organization, a branch of the Thai government equivalent to the U.S. Forest Service. The plantation was planted in the mid 1960’s with Tactona gradis (teak) in offset rows spaced ten to fifteen feet apart. Elephants are used in the plantation to harvest peeler logs used to make teak veneer.
A typical work day begins around 7:00 a.m. when the mahouts walk their elephants to the job site. Elephant logging is very much a communal activity. Crews work in teams of four to five elephants, skidding logs to a common deck. Attending each working elephant is a riding mahout and a foot-mahout, who sets skidding chains on the logs. A team of sawyers precedes the elephants, felling approximately half the timber and increasing the spacing between trees to about thirty feet. Limbed and topped down to four inches, the logs are hauled in tree lengths to landings alongside the road. These highly valuable teak peeler logs are ganged together and hauled with a caterpillar to a central landing, where they are bucked into appropriate lengths, sorted, and stacked. From this point, they are loaded into trucks and taken to a peeler mill for processing into teak veneer.
Skidding takes place until about 11:30, when the crews break for lunch. The elephants are allowed to roam freely and browse during the lunch break and rest period which lasts about an hour and a half. Typically the mahouts will huddle together for lunch on a bed of broad banana palm leaves spread over the ground. Each crew member will bring their own small basket of sticky rice, a national staple, and a cooked dish to share. During my visit, lunch consisted of such interesting dishes as buffalo meat, curried fish and chicken, fruit, nuts, and boiled ant and insect larvae. After lunch, work resumes until 4:00 when the animals are led back to the village.
The impact of elephants on forest flora is low compared to the use of heavy machinery. Base-narrow, elephants require a trail no more than three feet wide. They can operate on steep slopes and are able to punch their way through the thickest undergrowth with comparative ease. The surface area of an elephant’s large, flat foot distributes weight over a great area, resulting in footprints shallower than that of a horse. The greatest visible impact of elephants is the damage to forest plants upon which they browse in an effort to satisfy their seemingly insatiable hunger.
Fire is used extensively throughout Thailand as a management tool in forestry and agriculture. During the winter months, the undergrowth is burned off to control competitive plant species, reduce fuel build-up on the forest floor, and provide a clear work area for logging crews. A collateral effect of this management technique is profound air pollution, loss of plant diversity, and nutrient-depleted, erosion prone bare soil. The intensively managed teak plantations use a highvolume, production oriented approach with questionable prospects for long-term sustainability. Vulnerability to pest and disease predation is an obvious weakness in this system of genetically narrow tree monocropping.
Mahouts using their elephants in the logging industry have been affected by a nationwide logging ban. Many turned to Thailand’s expanding tourist industry as an alternative means of livelihood. As a result, elephant rides are a popular activity among tourists visiting Thailand. Riding on an elephant’s back is a great thrill. Elephant chairs rest on the animal’s back and are secured by a belly band around their girth, just behind the forelegs. A breast strap and a croupier keep the chair from sliding. The base of the chair is contoured to the animal’s back in the same way that a pack saddle fits a horse. A thick pad below the chair, made of woven rattan or other suitable material, protects the elephant’s back from chafing. Elephant chairs vary in design and detail from the purely functional to ornate. Riding atop an elephant is a means of travel not known for its comfort and an hour’s ride is more than sufficient to satisfy the curious.
With logging all but non-existent in Thailand and a seasonal tourist industry that provides only limited employment, many of Thailand’s mahouts have fallen upon hard times in recent years. A number of mahouts have moved with their charges to Bangkok, where they have been reduced to begging in order to support themselves and feed their animals. The hardships of these situations are immense for both man and beast. Elephants suffer the discomfort of walking on hot pavement through the congested streets of the city and mahouts suffer the indignity of begging for alms from passing motorists. To compound this difficult situation, the city government has recently banned elephants from the city. With no other option available, there is the possibility that some of these elephants will starve.
My most interesting personal experience involving elephants occurred while visiting a tribal village. Among the tribal people who inhabit the mountains of Southeast Asia, the Karen tribe is the only group who consistently use elephants. The tribe uses their elephants for a variety of purposes, from carrying burdens to skidding logs harvested for subsistence use. I visited a village near the Burmese border to see how elephants are used by these people. The village that I visited has two elephants who are collectively owned and used by the villagers. The elephants are allowed to roam freely and forage the forest for food when not at work. I left the village early in the morning accompanied by a mahout in search of the elephants. We walked through a lush ravine to the area where the elephants were believed to be browsing. Looking for a sign of the elephants we eventually found scat and a trail of freshly trampled vegetation, which we followed through thick undergrowth. Eventually we heard the sound of elephant bells clanging on the ridge above us. When we reached the ridge top, we saw a pair of mature elephants calmly eating. Their front legs were hobbled together with a length of chain to slow their movement and prevent them from wandering too far from the village. We unhooked the hobble and coiled the chain around the ankle of one leg.
Responding to a verbal command from the mahout, the elephants lowered their heads, allowing us to climb on and straddle their necks. We rode atop the elephants down a steep slope through thick green foliage. The elephants made a trail as they went. My elephant was so mindful and considerate of my presence that she used her trunk to clear the trail of low-flying branches which otherwise would have brushed me off of her back. Since we had traveled for several hours in the heat of the day, the elephants were in danger of overheating. When we arrived at a stream, the mahout had the animals lie on their sides and we cooled them by splashing them with water. We spent the remainder of the day skidding logs from the forest to the village.
In spite of the enormous changes that have occurred in recent years, the Thai elephant remains both a powerful cultural icon and a practical tool serving humankind in many capacities. Any visitor to Thailand can be assured of an opportunity to experience this magnificent creature. By virtue of its overwhelming size the elephant seems more like a throwback to the age of dinosaurs than a present day mammal. Its uniquely imposing form and stoic temperament combine to give it an otherworldly quality. The Asian elephant is the embodiment of serenity, quiet strength, intelligence, and inner calm.