Travel

In the Company of Elephants

The elephants lumber toward us up the hill. They come ever so slowly, swinging their heads from side to side, their ears flapping occasionally at flies. Behind them, their mahouts issue short, sharp commands that cut through the warm, twilight air:

“Pai! Pai!”

One elephant, who had begun to drift over to her friends in the huts nearby, straightens out and continues toward us.

Upon reaching our position at the corner of the pavilion, the mahout gives another command. As I look on in amazement, the elephant nearest us carefully folds her limbs and lays down on the ground. It’s a movement that is not half as clumsy or earth-shaking as I might have expected.

The mahout (or elephant caretaker), is a young man I place in his early 20s. He points to one of the elephant’s front legs, which are still extended before her. “Okay,” he says, smiling at me and gesturing at the nearest leg.

“Okay?” I echo, warily eyeing the downed animal, who is waiting patiently, wearing only a thin rope line around her mid-section in anticipation of our ride. I don’t believe in standing on ceremony, in most cases. But this is all happening faster than I expected.

“Get on?” I try, buying for time as I frantically try to recall the mahouts that I’d seen mounting their elephants just yesterday. “From her leg?” I guess. The mahout smiles kindly and nods his head.

I’ve spent the majority of my three-plus decades of life with horses, and usually, climbing onto the back of an animal is a place that feels like home. But this girl was big, and completely lacking the familiar saddle, bridle, reins, or other devices that experience has taught me are usually essential security features for mounting anything.

Just pretend you’re riding bareback, I tell myself, gulping. Stepping forward, I climb onto the elephant’s leg and swing aboard.

* * * * *

For most of us in the West, horses are viewed as a storybook part of our history. We’ve conquered empires and explored new worlds from their backs. They helped us build roads, dig for riches in the ground, and plant and harvest the means of our survival for centuries. And yet, half a world away, the elephants of Southeast Asia can be credited with many of the same achievements.

Elephants have been used to plow fields, haul logs, and participate in religious ceremonies. They’ve carried armed hunters through dense jungle terrain in pursuit of prey, and fought in wars at cavalry mounts. During the 16th century, the Thai people won their independence from Myanmar on the backs of elephants, and they are still revered in the country today, as much for their physical contributions as their spiritual ones.

A royal white elephant is the subject of a late 19th century Thai painting in the Walters Art Museum. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).
A royal white elephant is the subject of a late 19th-century Thai painting in the Walters Art Museum. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).

“The elephant’s footing in Buddhism comes from a white elephant that appeared to the Buddha’s mother before she gave birth and, at one point, when [the Buddha] was meditating in the jungle, animals including elephants both protected and fed him,” says John Roberts, founder of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation and the Director of Elephants at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

Roberts, who was born in the U.K., graduated college with an engineering degree but soon realized his calling lay elsewhere. He began to travel the world, volunteering at various national parks along the way, and eventually found himself working at the Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in Chitwan National Park in Nepal, the place where his nearly 20-year love affair with elephants would begin.

“We had wild tigers, rhinos, four species of deer, two of monkeys, 800 species of birds and, of course, elephants, both captive—as they were the best way to get safely around the jungle—and wild.”

* * * * *

Almost all of the elephant riding activities offered at the Golden Triangle camp are conducted without a saddle, which is one of the reasons I chose them. But riding as the mahouts do, meaning bareback on their necks and not in a chair on their backs, I quickly discovered, is not at all like riding horses.

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There is little to hold onto during the mounting process. Once you’re finally on their backs at a relatively un-terrifying height, the elephant must get to her feet. This is not so much jarring in its action (elephants seem to move in slow motion, even while getting up and down) but by the ever-so-sudden realization that you are now more than eight feet in the air, with only your seat bones and the back of your ele’s bulbous head to balance you.

Unfamiliar as it is, though, the feeling isn’t altogether unpleasant. I loved when Lanna, my elephant, would flap her ears around my legs and hold them against her head, keeping my feet warm and secure beneath their giant folds.

To see the world from this height, with no saddle or device between you and this majestic, primeval creature, is almost otherworldly. We rode the elephants to the top of a long, steep hill to watch the sunset over the Golden Triangle, where the three countries of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar converge.

The night was clear and warm, and the thick jungle buzzed all around us with the sound of thousands of insects. We passed by another elephant en route, grazing along the path, and she touched trunks briefly with Lanna in greeting. The mahouts allowed the elephants to stop every few minutes to eat or rest for a while, which is basically a form of compromise. Elephants, we were told, have notoriously “laid-back” work ethics. What they get done, they do in their own time.

* * * * *

Elephants once roamed freely in Asia as far west as Iran, and as far east as the island of Borneo. At the start of the 20th century, there were an estimated 100,000 Asian Elephants in the wild; today there are half that many. Like the wild horses of the American West, Asian elephants have seen a severe reduction in their wild territory—as much as three-quarters has been confiscated in the last century alone.

This change has brought them into frequent conflict with farmers, whose rice patties and fields they often raid for food. (Elephants require more than 550 pounds of plant matter a day and almost 53 gallons of water.) Currently in Thailand, less than 3,200 elephants are left in the wild. Most live in small, scattered bands in the thick mountain forests near the border of Myanmar.

Yet elephants are still everywhere in the country, from the labels on beer bottles, to fish sauce and curry paste, and even local tradition, which holds that to pass under the belly of an elephant three times brings good luck and fertility. The integral link between elephants and Thailand’s national identity is part of the reason why there are currently 4,300 elephants in captivity in the country, most held by private owners.

But this presents a different kind of threat.

Once, in the provinces of Northern Thailand, whole villages of mahouts and their elephants earned their keep in the timber industry. They worked and lived together, creating complex, time-tested bonds (elephants can live upwards of 70 years) that were often hereditary. Mahout training, like other trades, was passed down from father to son, from one generation to the next.

Elephants haul logs from the Salwin River, in Maulmain, Myanmar, circa 1900. (flickr.com/Mike Steele)
Elephants haul logs from the Salwin River, in Maulmain, Myanmar, circa 1900. (flickr.com/Mike Steele)

Yet when the timber industry began to dry up, so did the work for elephants, which were both expensive and difficult to maintain. Many mahouts, who would not consider parting with their animals, headed toward cities around the country in search of work, where the local Buddhist populace made panhandling a sustainable, if not profitable, enterprise.

“Street begging grew out of [Buddhist] beliefs, because it still holds that to feed elephant is to gain merit. Mahouts realized they could make a living from this if they also sold the food that allowed ‘merit’ to be made,” says Roberts.

“A nice tradition grew into a nasty industry, albeit one started by the sheer need to keep captive elephants alive and to make one’s own living when all other culturally acceptable options disappeared.”

Feeding an elephant creates "merit" according to Buddhist teachings. (flickr.com/Eli Duke).
Feeding an elephant creates “merit” according to Buddhist teachings. (flickr.com/Eli Duke).

Big city life, in many ways, changed the fundamental nature of the mahout-elephant relationship. Often, mahout owners simply rented their elephants out to panhandlers or tourist operations, such as trekking camps or elephant shows.

The new wave of elephant keepers that was created—some of whom were now in charge of caring for their animals on bustling city streets—often lacked the bonds or experience necessary to control them. The result was frequent fatalities among the new “mahouts” (some estimates put them as high as 100 a year) and catastrophic injuries for the elephants.

“Nowadays, there are too few true mahouts who really value the strong bond of love—I’ll call it love, because while they may not express it in the same way we might, the good mahouts, if you watch them long enough, look at their elephants in the same way they look at their children. That bond is essential for elephants to live well in captivity,” says Roberts.

“The most common chronic injuries we see stem from vehicle accidents when the elephants were out on the street begging. These are not only physical deformities that last a lifetime, causing chronic infections, in some cases, they also leave traumatic scars, with the elephants still being frightened of vehicles or certain situations many years later.”

* * * * *

We broke at the top of the hill and dismounted to enjoy a sunset cocktail while the mahouts guided their elephants into the bamboo forest to graze. My husband’s elephant, Bo, ultimately refused to come back, and her mahout was forced to traipse into the jungle yelling after her; apparently a favorite pastime for this particular female. (Or maybe my husband just has that effect.)

Back at the elephant camp, we dismounted onto tall stepladders and, like any good trail ride, had a moment to thank our elephants with a rub on the forehead before they were led away for their evening baths.

A handful of the elephants we came to know during our stay at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort were scarred by traumas endured during their previous lives working in the city. We meet one who lost a toe after being hit by a car on a narrow street. Others, our elephant guides tell us, are particularly sensitive to loud noises, or being passed by vehicles even on quiet roads.

A baby elephant on the streets of Bangkok. (flickr.com/EJ Sabandal)
A baby elephant on the streets of Bangkok. (flickr.com/EJ Sabandal)

But here, in a remote bend in the Mekong River, the lush green hillsides, dense bamboo forests and rice paddies of Chiang Rai provide a safe haven for maltreated elephants. It’s a place where, we might imagine, they think a little less of their troubles. Even if, as the old saying goes, they never really forget them.

* * * * *

The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation provides food, shelter, and veterinary care for their elephants, as well as health care and insurance for a community of mahouts and their families who live in a village adjacent to the camp.

Each of the camp’s 21 elephants has her own mahout or mahouts (sometimes two or three to a single elephant) who are paid a wage for the use of their animal in carefully managed guests programs offered at a handful of local resorts, including the Anantara Golden Triangle.

Elephants in captivity are controlled almost entirely through the use of voice commands, and they have a tremendous vocabulary. In the days of logging, Roberts says, some eles could understand as many as 70 words. Most are trained to follow instructions to stop (“how”), turn (“baen), lie down (“none lung”) and even how to dislodge an object (in the case we observed, a tasty orange bamboo shoot) from a grove of trees.

A Golden Triangle elephant and her mahout seek out some bamboo during a daily walk.
A Golden Triangle elephant and her mahout seek out some bamboo during a daily walk.

Supplementing the voice commands is the traditional Thai ta-khor, a light, dull-ended training tool carried by the mahouts that they use behind the elephant’s ears when they need to turn or direct their attention quickly, almost as you would tug on a halter and lead rope to redirect a horse.

The elephants take regular walks around the resort with their mahouts for exercise, and guests on a special group program are permitted to stroll alongside and accompany them. Resort visitors can also participate in a series of educational and “mahout training” sessions, and can even try their hand at elephant-back yoga.

Many conservation experts agree that sustainable tourist operations such as these, which offer low-impact ele activities, provide a viable alternative to Thailand’s captive elephant problem. Yet they’re still only scratching the surface. According to Roberts, only about 200 of the country’s estimated 4,316 captive elephants are held in these kinds of responsibly managed tourism camps.

* * * * *

I’ve been an “animal person” even longer than I’ve been a horse person, and elephants, in particular, have always captured my imagination. Inspired by books like the Babar series and Water for Elephants, and even a brief stint at Zoo Camp when I was a kid, I’ve always wondered: what would it be like to spend time with and even to ride an elephant?

If I had a picture in my head of how things might go when I finally got my chance, though, there were still plenty of surprises in store.

Wearing flip flops around an elephant—something I would never dream of doing around my own horse—did feel a bit strange. But during our first interaction with the elephants of the Anantara Golden Triangle resort, I was instantly struck by their incredible self-awareness, which, despite their size, seems far more acute than that of a horse.

Where a pony might carelessly swing his head and knock a kid out of the way when he gets bored or irritated, the elephants we worked with always knew where the people around them were, and how not to interfere with them. (And, let’s face it, even steel-toed work boots aren’t going to save your foot if an elephant decides to step on it!)

What’s more, they are surprisingly stealthy. As my husband and I shuffled along over rocks and divots in the path on our first elephant walk, I was shocked that our ele companions barely made a sound. In fact, tourists on safari have been regularly surprised and even photo-bombed by elephants sneaking up on them unannounced. The heel of an elephant’s foot, we learned, is essentially a giant shock absorber; they actually walk along on their toes, sort of like a woman in high heels—albeit a very sure-footed one.

For all that surprised me about elephant behavior, I was not surprised by how privileged I felt by the experience of being in their company. Riding them, it turns out, was just a small part of what made the adventure so memorable. In that way, it is easy to see how elephants have so inspired the cultures that have grown up alongside them. Even if, all too often, this has ultimately worked to the disservice of the animals themselves.

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And yet, as with horses and those other, relatively few species around the globe that have forged working relationships with mankind over time, the condition of elephants in Thailand today is complex, mirroring both the good and the bad of our own human nature. We need them, we revere them, and yet often and occasionally without meaning to, we do them harm.

By striving to do right by Asian elephants in the best way that we can—helping to conserve the population that still exists in the wild and offering the best standard of care (through responsible tourism efforts and others) for those already in captivity—we aren’t just helping to save a single species. We’re reflecting back the best version of ourselves.

To learn more about the elephants of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, click here

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