Many times when Geoff and I have been filming elephants, I am struck by their shadows. Perhaps if one grew up around elephants, an elephant shadow would seem nothing out of the ordinary, but to me, it speaks of something we don’t really see as it is, just the sign that it is there in front of the sun. Of course, where there is the shadow of an elephant, there is an elephant…or maybe an elephant statue…or maybe something completely different? What is this mysterious creature, once considered sacred and still owned by kings, now living so closely with people – painting, playing soccer, giving rides and playing the harmonica? In this case (at left), an elephant statue casts the shadow which I photographed at the temple above Chiang-Mai called Doi Suthep. Will we be left with the shadow of a memory of elephants, and if so, what can they teach us that we haven’t been able to learn?
On Wednesday, Nui our mahout/taxi/tuk-tuk driver and tourist guide, drove us up the winding road above Chiang-Mai to Doi Suthep, one of the most famous temples or Wats in Thailand. As the legend goes, the temple was built there because a white elephant turned around three times and died on the spot. While Geoff filmed the huge statue of the white elephant, I became mesmerized by the sounds of several large bells lining the northern wall and the intricate lacquer-work on the doors and interior of one of the secondary shrines.
Elephants were everywhere – in statues, woodwork, golden lacquered archways and at the bases of pillars There was even a small elephant placed in front of a gigantic buddha as if in prayer. As tourists came to kneel, they touched the elephant as a sign of good luck, as if it were a messenger for their prayers.
After filming at the temple and recording the sounds of the massive bells, Nui drove us to one of the several elephant camps around Chiang-Mai where elephants “put on a show” for the tourists, – painting, dancing, kicking soccer balls at each other, etc. and giving rides. I have heard several conflicting viewpoints in our short time in Thailand about these camps and what goes in to training the elephants to do these sorts of non-elephant activities. Richard Lair says that elephants are not tortured or hurt in the process and that if an elephant doesn’t want to paint or play soccer, it is not forced to do so.
I believe Richard when he says this, although he is mainly referring to the elephants at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. There is no way he can know what goes on at all elephant camps with all the training and elephants. He pointed out that elephants without scars on their foreheads is a sign that no abuse is going on.
Lair told us that if there is one thing elephants are particularly good at it is understanding doing a job – whether piling logs, painting a picture, getting tourists to the river, putting up a tent at the circus, taking care of their pet mice (I’ve heard elephants in zoos often save food for the mice in their enclosures). He firmly believes in focusing on elephant welfare and not conservation as the asian elephant in his opinion is on its way to extinction along with us, no matter what we do. A fairly bleak outlook but worth thinking about…
The choices for the elephants “out of work” when logging was banned in 1989 seem less than ideal. As Lair says, he fully believes all elephants should be free of chains and able to be wild, but that it isn’t possible to return the several thousand elephants trained for logging to the wild. For one thing, they logged their habitat down to about 5 percent from what it used to be and the few remaining patches of forest are already inhabited by wild elephants.
As we have seen on this short trip, people support the elephants’ daily diet with tourist dollars – in a wide-ranging number of tourist “elephant camps” where the elephants put on a show, paint, play music, etc., and with smaller trekking businesses like Thom’s where the elephants don’t need to do any tricks. Then there are the elephants used for begging (see the last post). Some small villages still have a few elephants used for the labor of farming and transport.
Meanwhile, what are the remaining 1500 wild elephants in Thailand doing? From what I hear in these interviews, they are spending much of their lives in fear of poachers who still pursue elephants for their ivory and for the babies which are money-makers in the tourist industry. For every baby elephant caught in the wild, it is likely that two or three female elephants were killed in the process of protecting it. It is illegal to capture a wild elephant in Thailand, but the levels of corruption in government makes it unlikely that there is much enforcement.
What I find particularly intriguing is the disconnect between the centuries-old Buddhist reverence for the elephant, seen everywhere in art and statues, in wats and in front of government buildings, and the spirit-breaking which goes on in order to domesticate a wild elephant. Where is the reverence and sense of the sacred in that situation? Many of the elephants in Thailand were born to domesticated parents, but many are not and endure a horrific week-long procedure which makes them “tow the line”. As Nui, our mahout turned cab driver said poignantly, “the elephant has done so much for us, but we do nothing for the elephant.”