Unlike most of Thailand's forests, the wooded areas surrounding the country's hundreds of Buddhist forest monasteries still stand. The monks who live there deserve all the credit. The golden sheets of saffron cloth that they wrap around the trees save the trees from being logged. The trees, in turn, create sanctuaries and keep pockets of habitat intact for Thailand's wildlife, including elephants.
Although Thailand introduced a logging ban in 1989 to protect the country's last refuges for biodiversity, the ban has been largely ignored in remote locations and deforestation continues. Some monks began "ordaining" trees in the country's threatened forests by draping robes around them and whispering Buddhist blessings. Once the sanctified trees became true "monks," even illegal loggers fear felling them.
Ordained trees make up temple forests that guard critical habitat for the sacred Asian elephant, a central figure in Buddhist folklore and Thai mythology. Buddhists believe that on the eve of Buddha's birth, his mother dreamed of a white elephant with a lotus. Touching one of these elephants–which aren't purely white, but pale and "illustrious"–can help Buddhists reach enlightenment. When a white elephant is found, the king decrees it royal because it is believed to bring good luck and prosperity to the kingdom. Six royal white elephants are currently held at the Royal Elephant House at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center.
For the forest monks, Buddhist teachings go hand in hand with the environmentalist principle of "deep ecology." Both unite ecology and spirituality. Both stress interrelatedness and oneness. Both encourage a reverence for all life. Given these similarities and the religious and historical significance of the elephant, monks' calls for forest conservation aren't entirely surprising. And in a country that is 95 percent Buddhist, their power of persuasion shouldn't be surprising either.