Published: October 2005
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

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.

On a visit to the logging site, Sangduen saw the elephant being beaten for bumping into trees. When she was told Jokia's history, she knew she wouldn't rest until she could raise the money needed to buy her. The daughter of a traditional healer, Sangduen Chailert runs a travel agency in the city of Chiang Mai, but her passion is caring for ani-mals in distress. A sort of one-woman humane society, she has accumulated more than 30 injured or abandoned dogs at her home and feeds another 200 strays. Jokia is one of 17 adult elephants Sangduen has rescued over the years, now passing their days on a 955-acre forest reserve 35 miles north of Chiang Mai, land that she owns or leases from the government. "I can't seem to stop myself," she says as we walk among towering gray bodies in the lush landscape of the Elephant Nature Park. She calls the place Elephant Haven, and it has put her at the forefront of a growing movement for more humane treatment of the animals.

Although shrinking wildlands, poaching, and conflicts with farmers have hit elephants everywhere hard, those in Asia are in far greater peril than even Africa's threatened giants. Once abundant from China to Iraq, Asian elephants now total no more than 50,000, including 15,000 in captivity. Thailand alone is believed to have had an estimated 100,000 elephants a century ago—half of them tamed to plow fields, transport goods, and muscle teak and other valuable hardwoods out of the jungles. Today about 3,000 tame elephants and a roughly equal number of wild ones remain. Images of elephants are part of the national decor, adorning everything from billboards and beer bottles to gilded palaces. Referring to 16th-century battles using elephant cavalry against arch rival Myanmar (Burma), Thais say their country won its freedom on these animals' backs.

Yet such reverence is at odds with the current condition of Thailand's working elephants. Logging and agriculture have robbed wild elephants of as much as three-quarters of the country's forest and put domestic elephants on the unemployment line, since most worked in the timber industry. And tame elephants, unlike their wild counterparts, are not covered under Thailand's Conservation Act of 1992; instead, they're classified as a type of livestock, like oxen or water buffalo. That means owners stuck with animals that can no longer produce income but still need as much as 500 pounds of forage and 60 gallons of water daily are free to sell them to be slaughtered for their meat or, in the case of bulls, for their ivory tusks.

The bond between a mahout and his elephant is among the strongest, most complex unions ever forged between Homo sapiens and a fellow mammal—the only one that can last a human lifetime because elephants also live to be 70 or older. But as the blind elephant Jokia shows, the bond is badly in need of repair. Many Thai mahouts are not the elephants' owners but simply men who hire on with tourist camps or rent the animals to panhandle on the streets, drawn by what looks like easy money. Panhandling has become so lucrative in tourist centers like Bangkok and Pattaya that the entrepreneurs who rent out the animals are sometimes referred to as "elephant lords." These keepers have no emotional ties to the elephants and little experience in how to care for or control them. The consequences can be tragic for both parties. By one estimate, perhaps a hundred mahouts are killed by elephants in Thailand every year.

In the city of Khon Kaen, rising from the plains of the northeastern Thai region of Isaan, I visit a 40-year-old street elephant called Bom and her three-year-old offspring, a big, pushy boy named Minimax. They've been rented out by their owner to two mahouts and three assistants. Although mother and son look to be in fair condition, I notice raw scars on Minimax's forehead and holes in his ears—wounds caused by an ankus, the baton with a hooked metal tip used to enforce commands.

Working the streets is a simple racket: The elephants march along under their mahouts' guidance, extending trunks toward passersby, occasionally adding a curtsy or head waggle while assistants fan out, hawking overpriced bananas or sugarcane to feed the giants. Onlookers pay out of kindness and amusement, and also because of ancient traditions that link elephants to fertile rains and prosperity. Thais still walk under an elephant's belly three times for luck, or to ensure an easy birth.

The midday temperature is sweltering, too hot for the crew to begin working the streets yet, so we linger where the men have strung a tarp over some weeds in a vacant lot. Plastic bags holding rice, chilies, and fruit dangle from branches. The tarp, a fire pit, and a small shrine fashioned from scraps of corrugated metal will be their home for the next month. Bom and Minimax are tethered with a long chain to keep them from wandering while the men doze; they've been up all night watching the elephants forage, making sure they didn't tear into the tasty trees of nearby yards. A ringing sound awakens the sleepers. "Yes, OK," I hear a groggy mahout say, answering his cell phone. "I can take Bom to do a wedding if you get the truck here the night before."

After the men bathe the elephants, we set out to shake some coins loose from the neighborhood. "Zu gluay liang chaang, bor krub!—Please buy bananas for the elephant!" the mahouts cry. "Just one bunch for the little one!" The men duck into shops and restaurants, waving bananas through wrought iron gates at people in courtyards. Minimax pokes his trunk in as well, bobbing his head up and down and squeaking encouragement at potential buyers as he's been taught to do. But few people are about, andafter two hours and five miles, the men have sold just three bunches of bananas for a total of 60 baht—less than $1.50.

The money was better in Bangkok, where Bom and Minimax could make up to a hundred dollars a night. But the government has begun cracking down on street elephants in cities, and this crew was run out of the capital. The behemoths slow down already jammed traffic and compete with streetside stores for people's pocket money. Forced to walk long distances to reach city centers each day, the elephants get sick from breathing exhaust fumes, drinking polluted water, and having to snatch meals from trash-filled ditches. They also break legs clambering over concrete abutments and get smacked by automobiles. Though enforcement of the ban was casual at first, pressure from the public and Thai organizations demanding more humane treatment of elephants forced city after city to follow through on the rules.

Still, the elephants have to earn their keep somewhere. Many have simply been diverted to suburban areas, where they bide their time before filtering back into the cities. Bom and Minimax are working in Khon Kaen only because local police look the other way as long as they keep to the fringes of town.

As dusk descends, the two elephants plod ahead on the paved road, oblivious to speeding motorbikes, barking dogs, and tag-a-long knots of shrieking kids. One resident gives money to have Bom suck up a trunkful of water and spray it through his doorway as a blessing upon the house. One of the mahouts ties a flashing red light to her long tail and reflective tape to Mini-max's so the animals are visible to cars passing in the darkness. Vendors begin opening their streetside stalls. Several give Minimax melons and squash from their own wares. Parents buy bananas and pass them to toddlers to hold while colossal Bom, watched by some of the widest eyes ever to appear on a child's face, plucks the treats carefully from their hands.

Business is picking up, but it looks as if the day's net will be under $20. Between a third and a half of that will go to the elephants' owner. The rest will be split five ways, with enough kept out to buy fresh bananas for the next day. It's a competitive situation: In Khon Kaen, a city of 150,000, there are a dozen other elephant crews trying to eke out a living the same way.

With the street business drying up, more elephants and their mahouts are finding work in tourist camps. In the seaside resort of Pattaya, visited by more than a million people annually, the number of camps has increased from three to nine in recent years, with one keeping nearly 80 animals on hand. All told, about half of Thailand's domestic elephants now spend their days giving rides to visitors in a howdah—a strapped-on bench seating two or three people—or performing in shows. The acts range from demonstrations of timber work to circus-like spectacles in which the animals dance, do handstands, pedal oversize tricycles, play soccer, and shoot basketballs. Whether you view the stunts as thrilling or degrading, they supply daily proof of an elephant's keen intelligence, coupled with a surprising degree of finesse.

Phairat Chaiyakaham is the owner of Pattaya Elephant Village, a tourist camp where the ringmaster's spiel during daily performances is unusual in its emphasis on elephant welfare and conservation. Chaiyakaham grew up in Bangkok enthralled by the elephants he saw moving cargo onto trains, and over the years he's watched as the lives of working elephants have been transformed by changing circumstances. He introduces me to the bull Boon Num, whose life story can be traced through documents that must be filed after an elephant is taken from the wild and each time it is sold. His tale mirrors the long journey of Thailand's elephants from forest dwellers to labor force to tourist attractions.

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."

That's Gas Pasuk, 24, a Suay handler who sits atop Boon Num during shows and takes tourists for rides on him. "Boon Num is quite gentle," Pasuk insists. "But he needs the sweet talk to soothe him. You have to have confidence in yourself and pay attention, know how he thinks, what he is feeling. When he doesn't want to be ridden, he will turn his back on you and growl."

Looming overhead as we speak, Boon Num crunches bushels of pineapple leaves from a nearby plantation. He pauses to break off a short stick. Gripping it like a pencil in his trunk, he guides this simple tool to a hard-to-reach spot behind one foreleg and gives it a thorough scratching. The intensity that sometimes flickers in his brown eyes melts away. Pasuk strolls over to rub the elephant's tummy and, in the Suay language, mumbles something like, "Hey Sonny Boy, how ya doing?" My guess is: Just fine.

I try my hand at mahout work at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in the northern town of Lampang. Opened in 1992 by the state-run Forest Industry Organization (FIO), the center's goal is to help preserve knowledge about elephants accumulated over many lifetimes and make sure it's passed on to the new generation of mahouts. Recruits enroll in a lengthy program that covers the essentials of daily maintenance, diet, and medical care. They learn a long list of commands and ways to gauge an animal's emotional state and are advised on when to enforce control and when to ease off. While they're trained in use of the ankus to apply pressure to sensitive points such as the base of the ear, they're also taught that a skilled rider uses this sharp-tipped goad less as a club than as a wand, scarcely touching skin.

For a modest fee, the center offers abbrevi-ated courses in elephant training for the public. My lessons come from Shinakorn Phongsan, nicknamed Jawn, who shows me how to order Prathida (Princess) to kneel so I can mount. But even using her foreleg as a step, I can barely reach her back with my hands. "Try this," Jawn says. Commanding Prathida to lower her head onto the ground, he runs up her trunk and leapfrogs straight over her forehead onto her neck. As I practice the move, stumbling around on her huge face, her patience eases my qualms about what it will be like to actually ride her.

I've been drawn to elephants for years. Despite misgivings about keeping them in captivity, I know of no better way to grasp the extraordinary combination of sensitivity, strength, and intelligence that defines these animals than to be as close as possible to them. Rising a dozen feet off the ground astride Prathida's neck, I feel the stiff hairs on her skin prickle my legs as I practice steering by wriggling my toes behind her ears while calling out ben (turn), soc (back up), and other commands from the more than 40 to which she responds. For a few moments I feel like the Master of the Mightiest of Beasts, invulnerable, watching the ordinary world pass far below my feet. More often, I simply cling to her neck while she shuffle-trots around investigating whatever catches her interest, hurrying over to a faucet, turning it on, taking a drink, turning it off, then veering away to greet an elephant buddy.

At nine years old, Prathida has yet to experience a day of hard work. Another reason she's called a princess is that she's a budding beauty and seems to know it. To label her spoiled would be unfair, but no one would deny she is a little on the willful side—insistent, curious, with a lot of bounce in her gait, and very, very noisy.

"She's the one you hear trumpeting on our CD," says Richard Lair, an FIO adviser to the center who's earned the informal title Acharn Chaang—Professor Elephant—during a lifetime spent studying them. Lair is talking about the center's recording of elephants playing along to Beethoven's Sixth Symphony with 50 school kids and a marching band, a rendition that makes up in enthusiasm for whatever notes go astray. Like many zoos and camps, the center encourages the elephants to paint, but, Lair says, sound and smell, rather than sight, are their most important senses. So he and Dave Soldier, a visiting neuroscientist from New York's Columbia University, started the world's first elephant orchestra, complete with jumbo-size drums, gongs, chimes, and a xylophone. "How large is this orchestra of yours?" a visitor asks. Lair has his reply ready to go: "Well, by weight, I'd guess three times the size of the Berlin Philharmonic." The straight answer is about 12 elephants.

"Once, while I was conducting," he continues, "we were coming to the part for the big gong, and a mahout forgot to hand his elephant the mallet. That elephant reached up and tapped him on the knee, as if to say, ‘Hey, heads up. I'm on!'" Singling out Prathida for praise, Lair adds, "She's perfect keeping up with the music. She'll trumpet to accompany a violin and chirp when she hears a cello."

Like a proud father, Prathida's mahout basks in her accomplishments. Jawn was a groundskeeper at the center before deciding he liked elephants so much that he wanted to sign on as an apprentice, then train to become a full mahout. "The best part is getting over your fear and making a friend," he says. Now if he visits his family for several days, he returns to find Prathida acting mopey. "The funny thing is, I miss her too," he says. "I think about her a lot when I'm away."

But while training mahouts to take better care of their charges is an essential first step in improving conditions for Thailand's working elephants, it doesn't solve the animals' current unemployment problem. Government officials talk up plans to use trained elephants and their riders to shepherd wild ones back into natural habitats when they come into conflict with farmers, and to hire street mahouts and their mounts to guard the country's parks and forest reserves against poaching. But only a handful of programs have made it past the discussion stage. One that attempted to recruit 200 elephants and mahouts who had been panhandling in urban centers to patrol parks fell far short of the mark. A hundred mahouts signed up—but 80 soon dropped out. The men were unable to adapt to daily life in the forest, complaining of rough paths and low pay. For now, mahouts and their elephants are more likely to seek work entertaining tourists. There are also proposals for one day reintroducing tame elephants into the wild.

The elephants at Sangduen Chailert's reserve in the hills will not be logging or panhandling or performing for onlookers ever again. They spend their days foraging in the forest, splashing in a nearby stream, and playing with friends, both animal and human.

Using my novice mahout skills, I ride uphill on the neck of Mae Perm, the first elephant Sangduen took under her care, in 1992. Trailing behind us is her best friend and constant companion, Jokia, the blind elephant. If Jokia nears a hole or precipice, Mae Perm sends out warning squeals or blocks the way with her body. She directs her friend through the forest with contact calls, and when Jokia is alarmed by some unexpected noise or scent, Mae Perm reassures her with low rumbles and touches of the trunk.

Mae Perm isn't the only one who worries about Jokia. Her mahout, a Burmese refugee named Kum, who also lost an eye in a logging accident, gets nervous about where she and Mae Perm wander at night. They sometimes cross into other valleys, and he's had to search for hours to find them. Once Jokia took off alone. When she finally turned up at a nearby jungle trekking camp, I am told, she not only arrived in good shape but had located a boyfriend from her logging days—the very male thought to have fathered the baby she lost—and mated with him. Kum tells me how Jokia, hearing him come to look for her, often hides in a thicket and uses her trunk to stifle the clapper on the wooden bell she wears. "You are such a sweet girl," he croons to her. "Why must you also be so tricky?"

Telling Jokia to raise her trunk, Kum hangs on to it and dangles in the air, laughing. I put away my notebook and do the same with Mae Perm, swinging from the trunk of the gentle old caregiver as if from a worn tree branch, happy to be in the presence of greatness.