Elephants are the official symbol of Thailand and they can be seen in some form or fashion just about everywhere. There are statues, paintings, paintings done by elephants, pictures, and even mascots. And, though I understand that elephants must play a significant role in Thai history, I wasn’t aware of the extent until I visited the Chiang Mai arts and cultural center in the heart of the old city. From what I learned there, elephants started becoming a symbol of good luck around the 15th century when two white elephants were constructed at the entrance of the North gate leading into Chiang Mai City. The two elephants were regarded as a supreme blessing and good to all who walked past them. Also, every king has a few white elephants in his stables for good luck.
Though white elephants were considered holy and could not be used for work, regular elephants were considered indispensible to local loggers cutting down and hauling teak wood. Thailand has a long history of domesticating elephants. Historically elephants have been used for transportation, war, logging, construction, and the building of railroads. However, when the Thai government banned logging in 1989, many elephants were suddenly out of work. Their numbers have been dwindling in recent years due to increasing levels of deforestation and an increasing human population. In addition, poaching for ivory and young calves to be used in tourist shows have been on the rise. Most domesticated elephants are earning their keep in the tourist industry giving rides and performing in shows. Meanwhile, the decreasing number of wild elephants (most estimates are less than 2000) are fighting to find the food and land they need to survive.
This is heart breaking when you think of how important elephants are to Thai culture. Fortunately conservation efforts by the Thai Elephant Conservation Center and the National Elephant Institute have been working to fight for the rights of the elephants. They also provide medical care and other services for the elephants as well as education and help for their owners. For more information on these conservation efforts you can visit http://www.thailandelephant.org/en/conservation.html.
I did have the honor of going to an elephant camp and I was even able to ride a very large elephant through the surrounding forests. They appeared to be well cared for but the whole experience still seemed very unnatural. I sincerely hope for the sake of the elephants that the conservation efforts are successful so that the domesticated population will be well cared for and the wild population can continue to strive.