By Taylor Fleming and Brittney Cook
Elephants in Thai Culture:
Elephants have played a prevalent role in the Thai society and culture since ancient times. Historically, elephants have been used as warriors in battle, laborers to the logging industry, and as religious icons (Lin, 2012). Thailand is a predominantly buddhist country and according to Buddhist legend, the birth of the Buddha was linked to a white elephant visiting Queen Maya (Cavanagh, 2008). White elephants, while commonly mistaken to be albino, are pink in appearance. They are not a separate species, but are rare (Iverson, 2017).
Due to the religious symbolism of white elephants in Thailand, the animal is of royal status and all white elephants in Thailand belong to the king by law (Cavanagh, 2008). The western game of the white elephant gift exchange is rooted in the history of white elephants in Southeast Asia. Historically, monarchs of Thailand could gift white elephants to friends and noblemen. However, because of the animal’s sacred status, white elephants cannot be used for any practical work. Due to the extensive cost of caring for an elephant, the recipient could easily go into bankruptcy if they were not extremely wealthy. For this reason, sometimes elephants were given as gifts to enemies of the monarch to cause financial ruin (Iverson, 2017).
Elephants in Thai Industry:
With the end of the Siam era in Thailand, elephants’ role shifted from warrior to laborer as a key part of the Thai logging industry. However, logging became illegal in 1989 due to extensive deforestation and mass landslides. After this time, elephants and their caretakers “mahouts” either continued to work in the logging industry illegally, or began to use their elephants for tourism. The ending of elephants’ work in logging put 70% of Thai elephants out of work and triggered an annual elephant population decrease of 3% (Lin 2012). In 1850 the Thai elephant population was around 100,000. Today, It is estimated that the current domestic Thai elephant population is about 2,700 with the addition 2,000-3,000 wild elephants (Thai Elephant Conservation Center, 2017).
While the elephant population is now considered stable, they are still at risk of exploitation, abuse, and poaching. Many people want to free these animals from all work and abuse with the hopes of preserving the Thai elephant population. One solution that has been suggested is ecotourism: promoting responsible tourism to areas of ecological conservation as a means of local industry (Lin, 2012). Many believe this can solve abuse situations and prevent this species from becoming endangered and potentially save these “domestic giants”.
According to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, there are many misconceptions that the elephants in captivity are mistreated. However, the elephant is very significant to Thai culture and “most Thai elephants are very well cared for, partly because most Thai people are intrinsically kind and humane but also because elephants are simply too valuable to abuse” (Thai Elephant Conservation Center, 2017). Without tourism and people visiting these elephant sanctuaries, the means to provide adequate care for the elephants would not be possible. Visiting elephant sanctuaries and taking the opportunity to learn about elephants and their significance in the Thai culture promotes resources to care for domesticated elephants and educate visitors about their rich history. Ecotourism of this kind can positively impact the lives of domesticated Thai elephants and conserve their population (Lin, 2012).
Cavanagh, R (2008, May 27). The Elephant in Thailand. Retrieved May 10, 2018 from https://www.thaizer.com/culture-shock/the-elephant-in-thailand/
Iverson, K. (2017, March 31). How the Elephant Became Thailand’s National Symbol. Retrieved May 10, 2018, from https://theculturetrip.com/asia/thailand/articles/how-the-elephant-became-thailands-national-symbol/
Lin, T. C. (2012). Cross-Platform Framing and Cross-Cultural Adaptation: Examining Elephant Conservation in Thailand. Environmental Communication, 6(2), 193-211. doi:10.1080/17524032.2012.662162
Thai Elephant Conservation Center – Conservation – Thailand’s Elephants. (2017). Retrieved from http://www.thailandelephant.org/en/thaielephant.html