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Elephant Conservation Center



Thailand photo.

July, 2004

Thailand photo.
1. Bathing the elephants
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Thailand photo.
2. The elephant parade
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Thailand photo.
3. Elephant show
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Thailand photo.
4. Elephant rides
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Thailand photo.
5. Elephant dung paper
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The Thai Elephant Conservation Center was originally created to train elephants, and their mahouts, to work in the logging industry of Thailand. Today, most logging has been banned in Thailand, and the elephants are out of work. The Center provides a place to care for elephants that would otherwise be abandoned by their owners, and to provide a source of income to help maintain them. Much of that effort is based on tourism. They have a total of 50 elephants at the Center at this time. A typical day at the center begins with the bathing of the elephants (see photo #1, at left). The mahouts scrub the elephant's skin, while the tourists gather around the water's edge for better pictures. During their baths, some of the elephants can be rather playful.

After finishing their baths, the elephants emerge from the water into a crowd of waiting tourists. It was a bit unnerving at first to be so close to so many really large animals, but the elephants are used to visitors, and there were no problems. Many tourists took the opportunity to feed the elephants bananas and sugar cane, their favorite treats. Next, the elephants formed up for a parade to the show grounds (photo #2). The elephants are well-trained and do things like beating a drum as they marched along. Many of the mahouts were tourists who had attended a short training camp, another source of income for the Center. There was even a little girl riding one of the elephants.

The show was great fun. The elephants showed off their strength and ability to move heavy logs (photo #3). They were able to work together with great teamwork, keeping the logs lined up as they moved them. They could also do very subtle tasks, like placing a mahout's hat on his head. Elephants sleep lying down, and they gave us a quick demonstration. Several elephants formed a small band, playing a popular Thai tune. Two of the elephants even did a little painting; their completed artwork was available for purchase. At the end of the show, the elephant's received their reward, food treats provided by the audience. Jamie was surprised by the speed with which this elephant reached out, and he took all her bananas at once. She did better with the sugar cane, handing it out one piece at a time.

Throughout the day, the Center offers rides on some of the elephants (photo #4). They have built a tall platform to make it easy for the tourists to get aboard. There is a short trail through the adjacent jungle that makes the trip even more interesting. The elephants are slow, the howdah feels insecure on the elephant's back, and the motion is a bit uncomfortable. Still it was great fun riding an elephant. Ours was a 6-year old female that prefered to stand and eat rather than walk. Our half-hour ride took closer to an hour. We noticed that the mahout yelled at our unmoving elephant and bounced up and down in frustration, but he never hit her with his formidable looking hook. Although he was clearly embarrassed by his inability to control her, he did not do anything to hurt her.

A recent addition to the Center's many activities is the production of paper made from the plant fibers that are found in the elephant dung. It is a source of income, and a clever way to help deal with tons of elephant excrement. (They also use the dung to generate methane gas for cooking.) The dung is first mixed with water and heated to kill any pathogens. The resulting mixture is washed to remove everything except the plant fibers, and is then bleached with hydrogen peroxide. Next, the pulp is stirred to break up the fibers, and mixed with additional water to form the paper pulp and then poured onto a cloth-covered frame (photo #5). After the excess water is removed, the paper is dried in the sun. The paper is made into a variety of distinctive products: greeting cards, notebooks, photo albums, etc. We bought a few items to use as gifts for our friends.

The Center has a number of other programs for the elephants. In addition to the mahout school classes, which can be as long as 30 days, they also offer home stay visits for tourists who simply want to spend time at the Center learning about the elephants. One of their most important projects is the elephant hospital. Here they care for the many elephants from around the country that become sick or injuried. Particularly in some areas along the Thai-Burma border, elephants are injured by stepping on land mines. There were 7 elephants in hospital when we visited, and about a dozen more in a kind of nursing home for those who needed less urgent care. And they have two baby elephants at the Center!! The youngest was just two months old when we visited.

 

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Jim and Jamie Richter, http://gotouring.com/razzledazzle/
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Created 7/2004. All text & photos are © 2004 Jim Richter.