Thailand, elephants enjoy ancient relationship

(Originally published in Just For Canadian Doctors magazine, Summer 2011)

By John Geary

Splish-splash, I was takin’ a bath - but it wasn’t on a Saturday night ... (my apologies to Bobby Darin…)

It was actually a Wednesday afternoon, and as they do every day right after lunch at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, the mahouts led their elephants down to the river for their daily bath/water-fight.

At least, it sure looked like a water-fight. And everyone - elephants, mahouts and visitors – seemed to be having a good, if somewhat wet, time.

Although Thais and elephants have a long-standing relationship dating back to the ancient kings of Siam, for many of the centre’s elephants, life was not always so hunky-dory.

At one point, most domestic elephants in Thailand worked in the country’s logging industry; however, when the Thai government placed a complete ban on all commercial logging in 1989, the elephants and their mahouts (the individuals responsible for training and working with the elephants) were essentially out of work.

Rather than sell them all off to private owners or cull them, the government set up this centre near the north-western city of Chiang Mai to keep them working, happy and healthy.

I was amazed by their trunks’ versatility; one minute they used strength to haul huge logs around, the next minute, the limbs’ dexterity came into play, painting a picture. Painting is not their only artistic skill; they play music on a series of hollow bamboo stalks. They also make wonderful pachyderm water pistols, and gave us a quick prelude of what to expect after lunch.

After the demos, a few remained behind, and we had a chance to feed them treats. A few times, I wasn’t quick enough and I felt two or three small trunks grabbing my fingers for the same treat!

The centre also recycles elephant dung into paper, helping conserve forests. Products made from the paper are sold at the gift shops.

As well as providing homes for the 50 elephants that live there, the centre also includes an elephant hospital facility. The hospital looks after sick and injured elephants and provides service around the country with its mobile elephant clinic.

Visitors who crave a more intimate experience can work one-on-one with elephants. The Homestay program offers multi-day options that pair up each guest with an elephant, to learn basic care and handling.

Trekking programs put more emphasis on the mahout's way of life and the details of elephant-keeping, and some include camping in the forest with mahouts and elephants, so you can make like Mowgli and live the Jungle Book life with your very own Colonel Hathi.

For more information about the centre, visit 

http://www.thailandelephant.org/

Tourism Thailand, http://www.tourismthailand.org can also help work out details of your trip.