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Happy Elephant Day, the 13th March is celebrated as such in the kingdom of Thailand. Many may be puzzled as to why it is necessary to dedicate a day to the national symbol of the country. The elephant even featured in the flag of Siam last century and the mighty creature has long been inextricably linked with Thai culture and folklore. From temple ceremonies to full scale battles the elephant has long held a unique place in the heart of the nation. It is fitting that such a day be set aside to honour this graceful giant.
Unfortunately reality paints an unhappy picture and the plight of the elephant is both sad and their very survival threatened. The days when elephants could roam over massive tracts of land in annual migrations of thousands of miles has long since passed. Reasons vary but the main problems they face is one of space and grazing land. In 1989 Thailand employed 15,000 elephants in tree logging. Others were engaged by Karen tribes-folk on farms and for transportation. This culture has long been associated with elephant care and the birth of an elephant calf was regarded as a new addition to the family. 1989 was a bad year for the elephant. Mud-slides caused by loose topsoil erosion engulfed a village killing most of the inhabitants. The governments reaction was to ban logging in an attempt to protect the ever decreasing national forests. Elephants became redundant practically overnight, their usefulness to their human companions outdated.
Their Karen keepers faced a similar fate, jobless and without alternative means of income they faced hard times and a bleak future. Some continued in logging, working illegally in a shadowy underworld of middlemen and profiteers. Other faced such hardships that they were forced to sell their beloved elephants to these loggers. The elephants life span is the same as a human beings and many grew up alongside their handlers, sharing their unique and harmonious jungle lifestyle. It was heartbreaking for them to have to part with their lifelong friends. Some Karen tribesmen likened their loss as the bereavement of a brother or sister, more describe painful and heartbreaking parting of their ways. Elephants are highly intelligent creatures, their sudden moves causing them anxiety and deep emotional pain.
Mother elephants were separated from their calves and sent to work in secret logging camps far in the heart of the jungle. Some were sold to tourist enterprises and several large hotels kept infants on their grounds to amuse their wealthy patrons. Still others were bought by businessmen and put to work begging in the cities and towns. Despite city ordinance specifically banning this practice it is not uncommon to see elephants around restaurants and bars in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. The hapless creature is hot and confused in the polluted streets. They are never fed enough or the right diet, many suffer from anxiety, malnutrition and sever foot problems. The lucrative business is supported by an unwitting public as well as tourists purchasing overpriced fruit to feed them from their riders and their assistants.
Many logging elephants suffered from exhaustion, the amphetamines fed to make them work longer causing horrendous health problems often resulting in death. The new owners lacked the skills needed to look after these sensitive creatures as the elephants misery continued.
Although legislation had been introduced in 1961 and repealed in 1992 elephant numbers dwindled to under 4,000 with less than 1,000 living naturally in the wild.
Today most elephants work in tourism but many places exploit them simply as trick show entertainers and visitors leave without understanding of their plight. Such education is all too often neglected but there is hope.
Sangduen Chailert (Lek) formed a unit she named Jumbo Express. Along with teams of overseas volunteers and expert vets she scours the mountainous regions of Northern Thailand offering help and medical care to the needy creatures in remote jungle areas. This care is funded largely by her own company Gem Travel, the associated website Thaifocus.com and the volunteer programme. Elephant day for her will be spent slogging over these hills bringing food and medicines to these often neglected creatures. In these remote parts there are no roads and much of the travelling is by foot. Lek believes that elephant day is very important for their survival and thinks it should be used as a marker day for the conservation of this national symbol.
If it highlights their problems and sad plight then this can be considered a good thing she said adding that while most people overseas knew the problems of the African elephant few knew how dire the situation in Asia actually was. With 500,000 African and under 30,000 Asian elephants on the planet it doesn’t take a mathematician to see that the extinction of the latter is lamentably close.
She believes that the education of visitors can help sustain them and Elephant day is an ideal time to start.
They are living creatures, not trick performers Lek explains they shed tears, show love and are incredibly loyal to those who care for them
Take elephant day as a time to show your admiration and respect for these magnificent creatures. Show them you care and show them you can make a difference.