Elephants on parade in northern Thailand

April 2nd, 2008 - 11:01 am ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Tourism Authority of Thailand
By Peter Janssen
Chiang Mai (Thailand), April 2 (DPA) Elephants painting, playing musical instruments, kicking soccer balls, dancing in mini skirts and trekking with humans strapped to their backs are some of the various pachyderm attractions available in northern Thailand. According to government figures, there are 40 elephant camps, employing up to 650 pachyderms, catering to tourists in the northern provinces of Tak, Sukhotai, Phitsanulok, Nan, Lampang, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son.

“I would estimate that about 65 percent of the tourists who come here visit an elephant attraction,” said Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) Chiang Mai office director Junnaporn Salanart. “Elephants are big business.”

Elephants have been big business in Thailand for centuries, but it is only recently that they have become tourist attractions.

In ancient Siam, as Thailand was called before 1939, elephants were used as battle tanks in wars against her traditional enemies, in other words all of Thailand’s modern neighbours - Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and Myanmar.

A white elephant once adorned the Siamese flag, although it disappeared with the name Siam.

When Thailand plunged into the world economy last century by opening her forests and jungles up to the voracious timber industry, it was elephants who did much of the dirty work, dragging away the trees that had once provided protection for their wild counterparts.

By the time Thailand finally banned logging in 1989, the country’s total elephant population had declined dramatically to about 5,000 from the 120,000 recorded in 1900.

Nowadays, there are an estimated 3,000 elephants in Thailand, 2,000 registered as “livestock,” and the remainder wild.

Thailand’s tame elephants, once mighty war machines and destroyers of the jungle, have been reduced to tourist trekking or roaming city streets begging for their food, and income for their mahouts.

“The elephant is the symbol of our country and yet Thailand is the only country that allows elephants to beg in the streets,” said Sangduen Chailert, founder of the Elephant Nature Park.

Sangduen, now a bit of a legend in Thailand’s elephant lore, started her Elephant Nature Park in the Mae Tang valley, 60 km north of Chiang Mai, in 1995 as a refuge for injured or traumatized pachyderms.

Among her current herd of 31, are Phu Max, a 61-year-old bull who was hit by a 16-wheel truck a few years ago, Mae Do, a female (now going out with Phu Max) who lost part of her left foot to a landmine and was saved from limping in the streets of Chiang Mai begging, and Lilly, a former methamphetamine addict.

There are also frisky teenagers at the park, such as Jungle Boy and Hope, elephant orphans who have been nurtured back to health by Sangduen, better known by her nickname Lek.

Lek, who won the Ford Foundation/National Geographic Hero of the Planet Award in 2001, among other accolades, funds her elephant sanctuary by donations and “hands off” tourism. The park and nearby Haven, where some of the pachyderms spend the night, requires about $250,000 a year to keep the jumbos fed, employ mahouts and staff and buy medicines.

Tourists, charged 2,500 baht ($79) for a day trip and 4,000 baht ($127) for an overnight stay, are allowed to visit Lek’s park where they can participate in feeding the elephants and taking part in their twice-daily bathing rituals in the stream.

It is the only elephant camp in northern Thailand where the pachyderms are allowed to do pretty much what they like doing.

“This is more like an elephant spa,” said Lek. “All the elephants do is eat, swim and sleep.”

The elephants are attended by paid mahouts, without whom the elephants would pose a hefty danger to visiting tourists, and paying volunteers who do much of the clean up work.

“I came here originally for a one-day trip and stayed two nights instead,” said Sam Frankowsha, a British national. “I went back to Chiang Mai and checked out of my hotel and spent two weeks here.”

Frankowsha was on her third two-week-long visit to the park. Other volunteers have stayed two years.

Part of the attraction is Lek herself, who has become a bit of a legendary character after being named an Asian Hero by Time Magazine in 2005, and has been featured in several documentaries.

“You’re my hero,” oozes one Western tourist visiting the Elephant Nature Park.

Lek, however, is not without her critics in the elephant industry.

“I came here six months ago because I believed in the project,” said one volunteer who recently quit the Elephant Nature Park. “When I realized it’s basically a business I decided to leave.” Lek claims to be in the process of changing her operation from a private company to a foundation.

“All the money I get for my company I give to the elephant park, and I even have to pay taxes on it. As a foundation I will not have to pay taxes,” said Lek.
DPA

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