Ten feet tall, four tons thick, and around 70 years old when we meet, Boon Num used to work for the Suay people of eastern Thailand, traditionally the country's foremost catchers and trainers of wild elephants. Getting fresh stock from the wild is considered more expedient than breeding elephants in captivity because pregnancy keeps a captive female out of work for 20 to 22 months. Boon Num's job was to chase free-roaming herds in Cambodia until one of the two mahouts on his back could lasso the quarry, usually a baby elephant, with a rope of braided water buffalo hide. Boon Num would then hold off the mother and other relatives trying to come to the tethered animal's aid. Afterward the captive would be placed in a "crush"—a tightly conﬁning pen—and subjected to a will-breaking ceremony called phajaan, still practiced in places today. The taming process can be brutal, involv-ing days of torment with spike-tipped poles until the elephant learns to move in response.
After his career of capturing wild elephants, Boon Num abruptly found himself in another part of the country with a new owner, a new mahout, and a new job: logging. Though Thailand outlawed further cutting of its forests in 1989, clandestine logging continues in remote areas, particularly near the Myanmar border. Hauling timber required less speed but every bit of Boon Num's power—and it took a toll. Injuries from toppling trees, runaway logs, and falls on steep terrain are common. Once, Boon Num lost the end of his tail to a bite by a co-worker—a frequent occurrence among elephants thrown together in random groups. One rear foot also became torn and infected; no longer able to work, he was at risk of being rendered for parts like an old truck. Instead he changed hands again and wound up in Pattaya.
Chaiyakaham didn't set out to make his tourist camp a facility for abused elephants, but like Sangduen Chailert, he just kept stumbling across animals whose stories he couldn't ignore. When Chaiyakaham encountered yet another elephant in distress, named Boon Lai, she was in her late 20s and in withdrawal from a serious drug addiction. Mahouts engaged in illegal logging often take yaabaa (methamphetamine) so they can work long hours, skipping food and sleep, and they slip it to their elephants for the same purpose. Some animals fed the drugs are forced to toil by day for one part owner and through the night for another.
"Why," Chaiyakaham asked the man trying to sell Boon Lai, "should I buy a dead elephant?" Beyond exhausted, Boon Lai was a skeleton lost in the folds of her own skin, standing on legs that trembled constantly but could no longer walk. "We had to spray her with water for two hours just to wake her up," Chaiyakaham says. Now, ﬁve years later, when I greet Boon Lai, hand to trunk, her back has taken on the graceful shape Thais call garn gluay, curved like a banana stem. She is the friendliest animal in camp.
Restoring health to such mistreated elephants is only half the battle. It takes gifted mahouts to restore their spirits as well. After Boon Num's leg healed (it took six months and three veterinarians), Chaiyakaham says, "the mahouts did not want to get up on him because he can be moody. Then I got the right man."