For centuries, Thai elephants have shared a history with the people of Thailand and played a significant role in the development of our culture. Elephants were first captured and trained as a tool of war. Due to their sheer size and strength, they were also used for heavy labor by transporting logs in the forest. Since the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng the Great of Sukhothai, they have been considered a major icon for Thai royalty.
Elephants are intelligent creatures and show incredible strength; each have an individual and distinct personality. For thousands of years, they were used by the Thai army as a tool of war. Due to their sturdy and rugged bodies, they were regarded as a "warm-blooded armored-tank" by the military. Only male elephants that were aggressive by nature were chosen as war elephants. They were trained to follow commands by pricking their skin with a spear; they were trained in a loud environment - with shouting soldiers, drum rolls, and gunfire - so they would eventually become familiar with the sounds of battle.
In the past, elephants also were trained for heavy labor, especially in Thai forests, when logging was a legal industry. Elephants were trained by mahouts (elephant trainers) until 10 years of age; then, they were considered ready for "real work" and were not allowed to retire until the age of 60.
In 1899, all forests were proclaimed property of the government; in essence, making logging in Thailand illegal. This law forced mahouts to find an alternate source of income. As a result, most elephants were trained to perform and to entertain visitors in circuses and zoos. Often taught over forty commands, elephants were expected to play soccer, paint a picture, and lift heavy objects – including people - with their trunks.
With the development of tourism in Thailand, elephants were then forced to take tourists trekking through the jungle and to perform in front of crowds. Finally, in June 2010, laws were passed to protect these majestic creatures.
Since the days of King Ramkhamhaeng in the Sukhothai period, elephants have been considered a symbol of the royal monarchy. Over the centuries, they have played an integral part of many Thai conquests; specifically, during the Burmese War, when elephants of war helped King Naresuan of Thailand achieve a victory over the Burmese Army. Their strength and perseverance always proved triumphant!
A white elephant, also a royal symbol of Thailand, is quite rare. They are not true albinos but are genetically different from other elephants. In fact, they are not really white; they are a reddish-brown color that looks pink when they are wet.
King Trailok, King of Thailand during the mid-1400s, was the first monarch to own a white elephant. Whenever a white elephant with a good build is found, law states the prize must be presented to the reigning King as a gift.