Thailand’s efforts to help endangered Asian elephant

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel November 19, 2015

 Elephants are bathed at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, outside the city of Chang Mai in Thailand. Photo by Betsy Herbert, 2015

Elephants are bathed at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, outside the city of Chang Mai in Thailand. Photo by Betsy Herbert, 2015

After camping among wild African elephants in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, last September, I greatly anticipated visiting wild Asian elephants in Thailand this month. But when I arrived, I found that finding wild elephants in this country is a little tricky.

Like their larger African cousins, Asian elephants are a highly endangered species. According to the the American Museum of Natural History, hundreds of thousands of elephants roamed Asia until only about 100 years ago. Today, they have been wiped out from large areas of India, Southeast Asia and China, leaving fewer than 50,000.

I found three great places to visit Asian elephants in northern Thailand, all about an hour’s drive from the city of Chang Mai. Trouble is, the elephants in these places are not exactly wild. That’s because 95 percent of Thailand’s elephants are living in captivity, and nobody really knows how many wild elephants are left.

A friend and I drove to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in the densely forested hills near Lampang. The TECC is a government-sponsored elephant camp that houses more than 50 Asian elephants (including six of the Thai Royal family’s white elephants). TECC seeks to educate tourists about the plight of elephants and to raise money for their conservation.

We watched the elephants bathe and frolic with their trainers in the creek flowing through the TECC grounds — truly a highlight of this trip!

After bathing, about a dozen elephants were led to a ring where they performed before an audience of some 200 tourists. They bowed as they were introduced one by one and did some cute tricks like removing the hats of their trainers. Later on, the elephants demonstrated how in the past, they were used to drag enormous logs out of the forest and stack them with their trunks. Elephants are no longer used by the timber industry because the Thai government banned logging in natural forests throughout the country in 1989.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the timber industry greatly increased logging of native teak and other tropical hardwoods in Thailand for export. Loggers began capturing and training large numbers of wild elephants to haul and stack logs. At the same time, this extensive logging destroyed much of the elephants’ natural forest habitat.

In 1988, Thailand experienced its worst flooding in 300 years, due to unsustainable logging and extensive forest clearing to create more agricultural land. So, in 1989 the Thai government banned logging in all natural forests in the country.

This ban put loggers as well as elephants out of work. Maybe not such a bad thing if the elephants could return to their natural habitats, but there was no place left for them to go.

In 1997, the Thai government founded the Thailand Elephant Conservation Center to help care for these “unemployed” elephants. The center advocates using elephants in tourism to provide income to care for them. Tourists can pay to ride the elephants after they pay to watch them perform.

Another organization, the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is operated as a nonprofit to provide a natural sanctuary to treat and protect elephants from the sometimes harsh treatment in tourism as well as logging. They seek to re-introduce rescued elephants into the wild.

 Yes, elephant prosthetics are important as many Asian elephants have been injured by landminds.

Yes, elephant prosthetics are important as many Asian elephants have been injured by landminds.

Finally, the Thai Elephant Hospital, sponsored by Friends of the Asian Elephant, rescues and treats injured elephants. When we visited, we were introduced to Motala, a 50-year-old female elephant who was badly injured, like many others, by a land mine as she was working in the forest. The hospital manufactures prosthetic devices to fit these elephants like Motala to enable them to walk.

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who is on a year-long journey around the world. Read her travel blog and environmental articles on her website (www.betsyherbert.com).