Thai Elephant: The National Symbol of Thailand

The Thai Elephant: National Symbol of Thailand

When thinking of Thailand, what comes to mind? Sandy beaches? Fashionable night clubs? Luxurious spas and relaxing massages? Or Thai elephants – the national symbol of Thailand?

These majestic creatures have played an important role in our history and have contributed immensely to Thai culture. A symbol of strength, durability and longevity…a true reflection of Thailand!

Thailand's Elephant Species

Wild elephants in Thailand

There are only two species of elephants in the world: the Asian elephant and the African elephant. There are four subspecies of Asian elephants which are Indian, Sri Lankan, Bornean and Sumatran. Thai elephants are considered Indian elephants, even though their appearances are different.  They are much smaller in size than other Indian elephants with shorter front legs and a thicker body. 

In the early 20th century, there were an estimated 300,000 elephants in the wild, plus 100,000 captive elephants in Thailand. Tragically, this number has declined over the past several years! In 2007, there were an estimated 3,456 captive elephants and roughly 1,000 roaming in the wild.  The reason for the decline?  Many male elephants were hunted while poaching their ivory tusks and left for dead.  Due to these illegal acts, Thai elephants were declared an endangered species in 1986.

Elephant history in Thailand

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.

Elephants in Thai Culture

Elephants in Thailand are considered an important part of our culture.  Thailand, a Buddhist country, portrays elephants as sacred animals where they are considered a significant symbol in the practice of Buddhism.  References to elephants have been found in various Thai pieces of literature, our national emblems, and numerous works of art.  Thai royal palaces and the walls of Buddhist temples are adorned with sketches and images of these revered creatures.

Thai elephants were held in such high-esteem that, between 1843 and 1917, Thailand's national flag proudly displayed a white elephant in a field of dark red.  Even today, the elephant is a part of the official emblem in many provinces of this country.

>>See more interesting facts about elephants in Thailand

Thai Elephant Festivals

Surin Elephant Round-up

Since the elephant is the national symbol of Thailand, you can imagine the festivals and events that are organized to celebrate this proud animal. The Surin Elephant Round-up is one example.  Held during the third weekend of November, this festival is based on the royal hunts of the Medieval Period when elephants were captured, trained and used as work animals.  This annual festival includes a parade, various games in which spectators can take part and a show of the animals' strength and prowess. 

The King's Cup Elephant Polo Tournament, held in Bangkok three times a year, is an event where polo players flock from around the world to participate in the games.  Teams of elephants and their riders test their abilities in the sport of polo while competing on a shorter version of a professional polo field.

Elephants in Thailand Today

After the logging injunction in 1899, elephant owners suffered a huge loss to their income, plus the high cost of feeding an elephant took its toll. Because of this, the mahouts were forced to find other uses for their elephants; this led to entertainment and tourism. 

This new attraction quickly drew tourists from around the world to Thailand in hopes of riding these imposing creatures through the jungle while enjoying their charming performances.  This new idea kept the mahouts from poverty, but the elephants endured torture while being trained and broken into submission in order to perform nightly.

At present, there are over half 3,000 captive elephants in Thailand that are being used for tourism; however, the treatment and care of some elephants by their trainers is considered inhumane.  When tourists pay for elephant rides, the metal seat on the animal'sf back digs into the elephant's flesh.  Because their back is not a weight-bearing part of their body, elephants often sustain wounds and sores from giving elephant rides; these injuries do not heal easily. These are only some of the complaints from animal-rights' activists regarding the cruel treatment of these stately animals.   

Lead by the Thai government, various laws have been enacted to protect Thai elephants; due to this legislation, the population of wild elephants has risen considerably. However, the conflicts between the elephants and farmers has also escalated, as elephants destroy farmers' crops while searching for food.  The Thai government has tried various methods to reduce this growing tension by providing more food sources for elephants, by reimbursing farmers whose crops have been damaged by elephants, and by building buffer zones between farming communities and elephants.

Elephant Sanctuaries and Nature Parks in Thailand

Thai elephant in the nature park

Protection and survival of the Thai elephant is a deep, world-wide concern.  Ethical sanctuaries and nature parks have been established in Thailand with the sole objective of rescuing and protecting elephants. Thailand has also created some of the biggest, wild-elephant parks in the world: Khao Yai National Park and the Thuang Yai and Huai Kha Wildlife Sanctuaries - both located along the Myanmar border.   

If you would like to interact with elephants while on your trip to Thailand, please never visit a park that advertises shows that promote unnatural elephant behavior (such as tricks or painting pictures).  Remember not to ride them; and please ensure the park you are visiting is treating their animals ethically.

UME Travel has several recommended elephant sanctuaries as a reference: 

Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center in Northern Thailand. The park has made dozens of elephant rescues which have resulted in a healthy elephant herd. The park provides a natural environment for elephants, buffaloes and many other animals under their care. Visitors are encouraged to interact with the elephants in their natural habitat and to volunteer while visiting.  Such a rewarding experience for tourists and families alike!  

Patara Elephant Farm is a preserve with the main goal of breeding elephants and eventually releasing them into the wild.  By doing this, they hope to rebuild the wild elephant population. They also offer an "own an elephant for a day" program which includes the experience of swimming with your elephant.

Other ethical elephant sanctuaries include Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Phuket and Pattaya; Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary and Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand.

Your visit to the any of these elephant sanctuaries will find you engaged in only positive experiences with elephants. You will bathe them, play with them and even feed them. The most significant thing you will learn about Thai elephants is the importance of protecting them!

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