Thai National Elephant Day / วันช้างไทย

Thailand - Scott #497 (1968)
Thailand – Scott #497 (1968)

In Thailand, every March 13 is observed as Thai National Elephant Day (วันช้างไทย — Wan Chang Thai), declared by the Thai government on May 26, 1998. The observance was suggested by the Asian Elephant Foundation of Thailand and submitted to the Coordinating Subcommittee for the Conservation of Thai Elephants. The date was chosen because the Royal Forest Department  had designated the white elephant as the national animal of Thailand on March 13, 1963. Here in Phuket, we also observe Thalang Victory Day (วันชัยเมืองถลาง — Wan Chay Mueang Thalang) each March 13 to commemorate the 1785 battle against Burmese invasion forces); I wrote about the local holiday on ASAD last year so today I am focusing on the national observance.

There are two species of elephant: African and Asian. Asian elephants are divided into four sub-species, Sri Lankan, Indian, Sumatran and Bornean. The Thai elephant (ช้างไทย — chang Thai) is the official national animal of Thailand. Thai elephants are classed as Indian elephants (Elephas maximus indicus), However, Thai elephants have slight differences from other elephants of that sub-species. They are smaller, have shorter front legs, and a thicker body than their Indian counterparts.

Elephants are herbivores, consuming ripe bananas, leaves, bamboo, tree bark, and other fruits. Eating occupies 18 hours of an elephant’s day. They eat 100-200 kilograms of food per day. A cow (female) will eat 5.6 percent of her body weight per day. A bull (male) will eat 4.8 percent. Thus a 3,000 kilogram cow will consume 168 kg per day, a 4,000 kg bull 192 kg per day. As elephants can digest only 40 percent of their daily intake, the result is dung amounting to 50–60 kg daily. As elephants will not eat in unclean surroundings fouled by dung, their instinct is to roam to a new area.

Postcard from Khao Yai National Park showing Thai elephants
Postcard from Khao Yai National Park showing Thai elephants

Because of their diet, the natural habitat of the Thai elephant are in tropical forests which are found in the northern and western parts of Thailand: Mae Hong Son, Chumphon, and the border near Myanmar (Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, Erawan Falls National Park), Petchabun range, Dangrek Range, and peninsular Thailand (Ranong, and Trang).

Thailand formerly was 90 percent forested. Illegal logging and agriculture has reduced forest cover dramatically. Forest cover shrank to 31.6 percent in 2015. This has meant death to the Thai elephant, resulting in the plummeting numbers of the animal, placing them on the endangered species list in 1986. In the early-1900s, there were an estimated 100,000 domesticated or captive elephants in Thailand. In mid-2007, there were an estimated 3,456 domesticated elephants left in Thailand and roughly a thousand wild elephants.

On Elephant Day 2017, the Department of National Parks announced that the number of wild elephants was rising 7-10 percent. Areas that had seen the most marked increase in wild elephants were the western forest in Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary and the eastern forest in Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai forest complex.

The elephant has been a contributor to Thai society and its icon for many centuries and has had a considerable impact on Thai culture. Thai people have had a close-knit relationship with elephants since ancient times, with the elephant playing a significant role in transportation,  manual labor, war, royal iconography, and the tourism industry. For thousands of years, elephants were captured and trained to be a form of transport and heavy labor. When logging in Thailand was still legal, they hauled heavy logs through forests, which in turn gave many Thai people jobs.

Battle between King Naresuan of Siam against Burmese forces on January 18, 1593.
Battle between King Naresuan of Siam against Burmese forces on January 18, 1593.

Thai royals and elephants established a relationship over thousands of years. The first recorded Thai elephant was in the stone inscription of King Ramkhamhaeng the Great of Sukhothai. In this inscription, he mentioned being nineteen and said his elephant, Bekhpon, advanced their attack on Khun Sam Chon to protect his father, while his father’s soldiers fled in fear. Chao Praya Prabhongsawadee was the elephant of King Naresuan of Thailand that came out triumphant in the elephant duel (ยุทธหัตถี) between the King of Burma and King Naresuan during the war with the Burmese.

Since the logging industry became illegal, elephants trainers (mahouts) have had to find other ways to feed their elephants, most of them turning to the entertainment industry and tourism. Most mahouts took their elephants to Bangkok, roaming the streets with baskets of fruits for the tourists to buy and feed the animal. They had to beg for food and perform tricks in exchange for money. Elephants in the entertainment industry were trained to follow over forty commands; they can kick soccer balls, participate in talent shows, and use their trunks to paint and lift objects and sometimes people. This lowered the status of elephants. On June 17, 2010, laws were passed for elephant protection, making these acts illegal.

Elephants at camp near Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo taken on February 23, 2008.
Elephants at camp near Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo taken on February 23, 2008.

In Thailand, white elephants (ช้างเผือก — chang phueak, also known as pink elephants) are considered sacred and are a symbol of royal power. A white elephant (also, albino elephant) is a rare kind of elephant, but not a distinct species. Although often depicted as snow white, their skin is normally a soft reddish-brown, turning a light pink when wet. They have fair eyelashes and toenails. The traditional “white elephant” is commonly misunderstood as being albino, but the Thai term chang samkhan, actually translates as ‘auspicious elephant’, being “white” in terms of an aspect of purity.

According to Brahmanic belief, if a monarch possessed one or more ‘white’ elephants, it was a glorious and happy sign.”

In the Thai language, they are called albino, not white, indicating “pale yellow eyes and white nails”, with white hair. The “rough skin was either pink all over or had pink patches on the head, trunk, or forelegs.” “They were not worshipped for themselves and were regarded as an appendage to the King’s majesty.”

Elephant caravan at Ayutthaya, Thailand.
Elephant caravan at Ayutthaya, Thailand.

Any white elephants discovered are presented to the king of Thailand (although this presentation is usually a ceremonial one — the elephants are not actually taken into captivity). Historically, the status of kings has been evaluated by the number of white elephants in their possession. The late king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, owned as many as 21 white elephants — considered an unprecedented achievement, making him the monarch who owned the greatest number of chang phueak in Thai history. The first elephant found in King Bhumibol’s reign was regarded as the most important elephant in the whole realm; it received the royal title which bears his majesty’s own name: Phra Savet Adulyadej Pahol Bhumibol Navanatta-parami (พระเศวตอดุลยเดชพาหล ภูมิพลนวนาถบารมี). However, the king did not bestow royal titles to all of the white elephants in his possession. Today, eleven of these elephants are still alive and only five have royal titles.

A white elephant in Thailand is not necessarily albino, although it must have pale skin. After being discovered, the elephants are assigned to one of four graded categories before being offered to the king, although the lower grades are sometimes refused.

In the past, lower grade white elephants were given as gifts to the king’s friends and allies. The animals needed a lot of care and, being sacred, could not be put to work, so were a great financial burden on the recipient — only the monarch and the very rich could afford them. According to one story, white elephants were sometimes given as a present to some enemy (often a lesser noble with whom the king was displeased). The unfortunate recipient, unable to make any profit from it, and obliged to take care of it, would suffer bankruptcy and ruin.

King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) in 1921 decreed in the Wild Elephant Protection Act that all wild elephants were the property of the government, to be managed by the Department of the Interior as the King’s representative. Elephants with special features — white elephants — were to be presented to the king.

Mahout cleaning an elephant at Khao Sok, Thailand.
Mahout cleaning an elephant at Khao Sok, Thailand.

The law pertaining to domesticated elephants is the Beast of Burden Act 2482 B.E. (1939). This act classifies elephants as draught animals along with horses, donkeys, and oxen. It allows domesticated elephants to be treated as private property. This act has no additional measures for animal welfare protection. The Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act, B.E. 2535 (1992) protects wild elephants, but excludes registered draught animals.

Logging — legal and illicit — destroyed much of the natural elephant habitat. This resulted in a plunge in the number of elephants in Thailand. Organizations were established to better the lives of the elephants. The National Elephant Institute is the only organization that is government-owned. It is based in Lampang, a province in northern Thailand. There are many other private organizations contributing to preserving this endangered species as well. These organizations generate revenue by letting people experience elephants in their natural state. They have a schedule of elephant shows which are not harmful or too tiring for the elephants. According to the NGO World Animal Protection, “A true elephant-friendly venue would be purely observational for visitors,…” The organization has published a list of the elephant venues with the best treatment of elephants. Unfortunately, this call to boycott all camps ignores the bigger problem of all domestic elephants requiring care and nuturing. In addition the complexity of herd dynamics in domestic elephants, the strong bonds that elephants form with their mahouts, the existence of killer and dangerous elephants, the history and culture of elephants are all factors that must be also factored into caring for elephants and what tourist solutions are appropriate. A variety of solutions must be considered and implemented to ensure the wellbeing of elephants.

In Thailand, there are many references to the elephant in art works, literature and national emblems. Since Thailand is a Buddhist country, elephants are portrayed as sacred animals from their special symbolism in the practice of Buddhism. Many art works in Thai royal palaces and temples have drawings of elephants on the paintings on the walls. Prior to September 1917, Siam’s national flag was a white elephant in the middle of the scarlet background. White elephants in Thai society also represent wealth and power because of their past association with the Thai royals. The Royal Thai Navy flag also bears the symbol of a white elephant. Many provinces in Thailand used to have elephants as part of their official emblems as well. In the Thai animal and planetary zodiac, the elephant is the fourth animal zodiac.

National Thai Elephant Day has three main purposes. The first is to show how significant elephants are to Thailand. The second is to demonstrate how the Thai culture depends on the elephants. Lastly, this annual celebration promotes awareness about protecting and conserving the Thai elephant population and its habitats. Each elephant park and zoo organize unique programs during the day. Several parks host Buddhist rituals where elephants are scrubbed and showered during which Buddhist monks perform holy rituals. They purge back luck and pray for positivity in for elephants, as well as their mahouts. Large crowds come together to get blessed by elephants in numerous areas.

Elephant buffet lunch on National Thai Elephant Day.
Elephant buffet lunch on National Thai Elephant Day.

In Chiang Mai Province, activities include buffet luncheons for elephants, a traditional blessing ceremony and a special elephant show. These activities are organized by Chiang Mai University and the Maesa Elephant Camp. The ancient city of Ayutthaya, dozens of elephants are dressed up with gold head covers and red body attire. The mahouts play a key role in the festivities. They wear a unique red dress to stand out. The elephants get the opportunity to eat a big lunch with plenty of vegetables and fruits. Every year on this day, the elephants eat almost 300 kg of fresh food. Following the meal, Buddhist monks begin their rituals. Typically, monks pray and mourn for elephants no longer with us. This may be the most interesting aspect of the whole event.

Elephant war tactics are reenacted at a number of Thailand’s elephant training centers. Called the Kraal Paniad, staged battles on elephant-back are an astounding display of elephants’ innate talent and ability to learn. Elephant racing is one of many sports the elephants were involved in. Races were actually part of the elephant war training in old Siam, where the elephants were lined up and on command charged. Today, elephants are trained on the delicate steps and maneuvers of such tactics in order to recreate the battle scenes of the Kraal Paniad. These races and accompanying tactics require the elephant to learn and respond to more than 60 separate commands. On the signal to take off, the elephants begin a stampede, and this quickly turns into a rhythmic, flowing ballet on the dust. The elephants are fast and as they gather momentum the race becomes a legit step performance.

On March 11, 2016, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha  released a statement to the Thai people and pledged to preserve the elephants. The prime minister stated that the government is attempting to prevent the trade of ivory. With the assistance of the royal family, the Zoological Park Organization began a project for mahouts and their elephants called the Surin Elephant Kingdom project, which will transform Surin’s Dong Phu Din National Forest into a sanctuary for the national animal. Essentially, an elephant village will be created. The government is attempting to legally reclaim the forest areas from trespassers. Since 2015, they have recovered over 30,000 hectares of forest areas. The government of Thailand is attempting to acquire more forest areas moving forward.

Elephants near Nai Harn, Phuket, Thailand. Photo taken on November 30, 2013.
Elephants near Rawai, Phuket, Thailand. Photo taken on November 30, 2013.

When I moved to Phuket Province in 2015, it was still possible to see elephants lumbering along many of the rural roads, usually accompanied by their mahout but occasionally on their own. There were a number of elephant camps in the hills in the southwestern reaches of the island. I once saw elephants assisting in beach clearance and fondly remember an incidence where we saw a solo elephant walking down the street before turning into the forest, followed several minutes later by his worried mahout. Such “wild” sightings are rare now as traffic and rampant resort construction has consumed Phuket. However, I was shocked to see an elephant in a field while en route to an English camp just a week ago.

They are such majestic, proud animals that I am always a bit in awe of them. I believe most, if not all elephants currently on Phuket are either employed by one of the two multi-cultural presentations done on the island or reside at the highly-regarded Phuket Elephant Sanctuary in the northeast portion of the province. Established in December 2016, this ethical refuge “seeks to meet the highest standard in animal welfare: rescuing, retiring and rehabilitating elephants that have suffered from working in the trekking and logging industries.” I have yet to visit as a morning tour runs about 3,000 baht which is quite a bite out of my teacher’s budget but I will make the splurge someday soon.

With its great reverence for elephants, Thailand has portrayed the animals on numerous stamps. Unfortunately, I possess very few of these (something I just took care of on eBay, so I’ll be better prepared for next year’s Elephant Day). I really like the engraving on Scott #497, issued on March 1, 1968, to promote Thailand’s teakwood industry. It’s a 2-baht stamp printed in rose claret and gray olive, portraying an elephant carrying a teakwood trunk. Since the stamp was issued, poor resource management in combination with an unsustainable logging program, political corruption combined with unscrupulous business practices severely eroded Thailand’s supply of teak wood. The process of deforestation contributed to a series of massive floods, landslides and relentless topsoil erosion in Northern Thailand. These areas formerly had large swathes of the tropical trees. A countrywide ban on the commercial logging of teak was instituted in 1989. Currently, the Thai government is aggressively trying to reforest every area they can and give every incentive to individuals and companies to support the requirements of the Thai furniture industry.

Siam Flag (1855-1916)Phuket Elephant Sanctuary

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