There are two types of elephants – the Asian and African elephants. They can differ by the shape of their ears, head, and trunks, where African elephants can weigh up to 6,000kg while an Asian elephant can weigh up to 5,400kg. They eat about 149-169 kilograms of vegetation daily. 80% of an elephant’s day is spent in feeding to sustain their huge built!
Thai Elephant or “Chang Thai” is a subspecies of an Asian elephant and it is Thailand’s national animal. These animals have a long history of relationship with the Thai that goes centuries back. They often say that elephants helped them build the nation they have now, as these animals served as a means of livelihood, transportation, and even a war machine due to its genetic strength and intelligence.
History made elephants a cultural symbol of Thailand. In Buddhism, it is believed that a white elephant (also called albino elephant) appeared on Queen Maya of Sakya’s dreams. The dream depicted an elephant circling her and entered into her womb. Only after was she able to conceive and that baby in her womb was Buddha. This is mainly the reason why an elephant is a religious icon of Buddhism, and Thailand as a Buddhist country has adopted the elephant symbol.
Bangkok’s official seal where an elephant is clearly shown
Other than being a religious symbol, elephants are also a symbol of liberty in Thailand. Elephant war has been used since the time of Alexander the Great in countries like Thailand, India, and Myanmar. These war elephants were used as a transportation to move from one battle location to the other. The Burmese war which was fought by Burma (now Myanmar) and Thailand also included the use of the elephant. The two kings fought for territory and freedom. They have agreed that if the Thai king would win the war, the country will receive its sovereignty, but if they lose, they will still be a part of Burma, indefinitely. The Thai King won the war with his elephant’s help. Since then, the elephant became a symbol of freedom and new beginnings in the country of Thailand.
Fast forward to the late 1900s, the elephant has been used as a part of the logging industry in Thailand. These animals helped transport the trees down the mountains. When logging was still legal in Thailand, a drop of elephant population started and has never fully recovered up until now. Logging is now illegal in Thailand, dissolving many jobs for the elephants and their Mahouts or an elephant rider/trainer. This forced them to enter into a new type of living, the entertainment world.
Many elephants are seen on social media and news giving back rides to tourists. Some of these animals perform tricks, dance, and even beg for food so they can eat. But these tricks are not enough to sustain an elephant’s consumption that other elephants die of malnutrition and hunger.
Riding an elephant is becoming a more popular tourist attraction in countries like Thailand
This has caused total depletion to their population, from 100,000 to just only 5,000. Because of this, the elephant-entertainment industry has received a lot of backlash from people across the globe. Animal rights activists and non-government organizations seek to stop these inhumane acts. They advocate putting these gentle giants on sanctuaries where they can be preserved, live a healthy life, and be free from physical and emotional tortures from their abusive Mahouts. Mahouts are also aware of this unhealthy treatment to their animals. But some Mahouts said that they cannot afford to feed elephants on a daily basis that is why they cling to operations where they can earn money, both for their families and their elephants.
Petitions have been initiated to stop the elephant riding industry for this causes physical traumas to elephants. The welfare of elephants is taking the center stage in this modern time, very far from the economic stunts of the past decades.
Concern for elephants created an organization called the National Elephant Institute (NEI) which started out from Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang. They closely monitor the national parks and sanctuaries to help protect the remaining elephants in Thailand.
Trunks of elephants are illegally harvested to make art pieces out of them
Despite these conservation laws, elephants are still not safe from greedy humans. Elephant tusk is a very in-demand business, killing hundreds of elephants every year. These tusks are sources of ivory, a material that can be used in art and manufacturing. Southeast Asian countries such as Philippines and Malaysia use tusks for daggers and carving religious images like Virgin Mary and Catholic saints.
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