Published: October 2005

Thai Elephants

Elephant City

Thailand's Urban Giants

Thailand's domestic giants, harshly treated by some of their handlers, face a perilous future in a land of shrinking forests and spreading cities.

By Douglas H. Chadwick
Photograph by William Albert Allard
National Geographic Photographer

In the hills of northern Thailand two strong-minded females share a hut built on stilts in the forest. One, named Jokia, is 42 years old and weighs three tons; the other, named Sangduen, is also in her 40s and weighs 86 pounds. Elephant and woman, their lives linked. When a meal is being prepared, Jokia, standing below, lifts her great nose, which then writhes along the bamboo floor like a plump python until Sangduen hands over some vegetables or a bit of fruit. Before the two met, Jokia had been employed in an illegal timber-cutting operation. Forced to keep dragging logs while pregnant, she struggled up steep slopes pulling heavy loads and suffered a miscarriage. Jokia went on strike. Her handler, or mahout, took to shooting her with a slingshot to get her up and moving, a practice mahouts call "using the remote." He missed his mark one day, blinding her left eye. Jokia's funk deepened. When the man who owned her came by to deal with the situation, she broke his arm with a swing of her trunk. In revenge he shot her remaining eye with an arrow, then put her back to work in chains, hauling freshly felled teak in darkness.

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