We asked the maid if it really were elephants we could hear. It was indeed, however, no wild elephants, it turned out, but elephant artists from the lavish, Las Vegas style Fantasea show, situated a few hundred meters down the road from the hotel we stayed in. The show consists of dance, music, light effects, acrobatics, magic, etc., and the plot is a mix of Thai myths, legends, and history. Elephants play a heroic part in the show, and they have been important animals for Thais through time. Today, elephants are used for tourist entertainment, but traditionally, they worked in agriculture and (teak) logging, or they lived wild in the jungle.
Thai pioneer Life – just 40 years ago
Patcharee, 50, was born and raised in Loei in northern Thailand. She told me about her childhood and how her parents about 40 years ago went out and put fence posts around a piece of land in the jungle. In this way the land became their property, and they could begin to establish their sugar cane farming. They used elephants to clear the jungle and make the land ready for cultivation of crops. Apart from elephants, the story reminds me of the American frontier and pioneer families in the United States; and conditions have undoubtedly been severe in both places. Today, Patcharee’s family has a well-run farm and sugar production, and much of the work is done by machines.
This little “pioneer story” made me look into the (huge) changes that have occurred in Thailand over the past decades: According to Wikipedia, 55 percent of the country was jungle in 1965, while the share is now down to 25 percent. According to the government-owned Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC), the number of elephants in Thailand was about 100,000 in 1850. Today there are 2700 domesticated elephants, and 2000-3000 elephants are estimated to live wild in Thailand.
How are Thai elephants doing today?
On its website, TECC tries to do away with prejudices, claiming that most Thai elephants are very well cared for, not least because they are highly valuable. On the other hand, TECC was quoted by the Danish daily Politiken on January 6th, 2014, saying that Thais who keep elephants at tourist sites do not treat their animals properly. TECC’s recommendation for tourists is to carefully select the elephant camp to be visited.
And what about the jungle – will it be gone shortly?
Today, a large part of Thailand’s jungle is transformed into protected national parks, and logging has been banned since 1989. The government has even made attempts at reforestation with a set target to increase forest reserves to 40 percent. However, environmental organizations, including Rainforest Conservation Fund, emphasize the ongoing problem of illegal logging due to corruption in the Thai government and administration.