The Thai Elephant – Pride of a Nation
What You Should Know About Asian Elephants:
Thai Elephant Size: The Largest land animal on Earth today.
Male: 2.7m (9ft) in height ; Weight 3,200 – 4,500 kg.
Female: 2.3 m (7.5 ft) in height; Weight 2,300 – 4,500 kg.
Newly born baby elephants: 0.9m (3ft) in height; weight 90kg.
Elephant Brain: weighs about 5 kg (4 times the weight of a human).
Elephant Life Cycle:
The life cycle of the elephant is remarkably similar to the human being. The baby elephant suckles milk using the mouth, not trunk, and weaned on milk between 2 – 4 years. Begin work at age 16 and fully grown at 20 years Are in their working prime between 20-40; on light duties only when they reach 50; live around 70 years.
They are secretive and shy, keeping their distance from other animals. Only four hours are needed to rest each night and they only lie down to sleep
when they are sick.
All the females in the herd often take turns to look after the baby elephants. If the mother dies then the other females look after the orphaned baby.
An elephant will be able to tell if a corpse is from the same herd. If so then
the whole herd will avoid that area, apparently out of respect.
Elephant Sight: Rather poor vision capable of seeing clearly only at very
short distances up to about 10 metres. The eye is small in comparison with the head and there is only a vestigial tear gland. Elephants do not have a tear duct and ‘tears’ simply evaporate or run down the cheek.
Elephant Hearing: Excellent hearing superior to human standards. Largest ear of any creature act as amplifiers and warn of possible dangers. They communicate in extremely low ranges and sounds can travel many kilometers. this ability is mainly used when communicating between a female in heat looking for a suitable male companion. The sound made is beyond the range of the human hear but is said to contribute to the “rumble in the jungle”.
The”knuckle” found at the back of the ear is amongst the softest parts of the body and is used by professional elephant riders (mahouts) to steer and direct the creature.
Elephant Smell: Highly developed sense of smell thought to be superior to that of any other land mammal. The nostrils are at the tip of the trunk. Elephants can detect scents from long distances, up to several kilometres.
Elephant Touch: Acute deftness of balance achieved by high tactile sense.
Elephant Taste: Comparable to all higher animals and can easily distinguish between unsuitable, suitable and favored fodder.
Elephant Heartbeat: Elephant heart beat rate is about 28 beats per minute, much slower than humans.
Elephant Trunk: The trunk is a wonderful organ. A boneless mass of flesh and consists of up to 100,000 muscles. It is 2 meters long and weighs around 140 kg. The trunk has a small finger like lip at the end which can distinguish between size, shape, texture, hot and cold.
It can be used for such diverse tasks as shifting a 600 kg log to picking up a coin. The animal uses its trunk to feed and drink by bringing food and water
to the mouth, breathe, make noises, caress it’s young and sometimes even fight. When totally submerged in water the trunk can also be used as a snorkel. Trunks can hold six liters of water and are often used as a flexible shower hose pipe. It is a superb organ of smell, and can be directed easily
toward the source.
By beating the ground violently with the trunk, the elephant signals its anger or displeasure.
When an elephant is on unsteady or unfamiliar ground it will use the outside
of the trunk to beat the earth, determining if the ground is firm enough to walk on. Once safety is substantiated the front foot is moved forward onto the tested area. The rear foot follows and is carefully placed in exactly the same footprint.
Elephants love to touch each other. Explore friends with their trunk or slide sniff at their mate. They are an extremely sensitive creature. Friends enjoy touching each other using the trunk as an arm.
Elephant Tusks & Teeth : Tusks are, in fact teeth (incisors) and are classified as ivory. Males have larger tusks of up to 1.5 -1.8m in length whilst the females do not have tusks at all.
Milk tusks are fully grown at just 2 inches long and are shed before the
calf reaches it’s second birthday. Permanent tusks then begin to grow.
The purpose of the tusk is to dig for food, clear debris, fight and to carry
heavy loads of up to 1 ton. Tusks never stop growing.
Molars (grinding teeth) are at least 30 cm long and weigh about 4 kg. The animal has only four of these teeth at any one time. New molars form in the back of the mouth and push the old ones forward and out completely. An elephant usually grows six sets of these molars in a life-time, the final set grows when it is about 40 years of age. When the last set decays, around 70 years, the elephant finds it hard to eat and subsequently a great many are likely to die of starvation.
Breeding Patterns and Birth:
Males are highly individualistic and only join the herd for mating seasons.
Males duel each other with the winner claiming steed rights for the whole herd. Deaths sometimes occur from wounds inflicted in these duels.
The female runs away coyly for a short while, as part of a ritual, before
submitting to her victorious mate.
The male’s penis is retractable, there is no scrotum and the testicles are housed internally. Copulation takes around 20 seconds with very little movement or noise. Mating continues promiscuously (with other herd
males), for two days after which the most powerful male drives off the others. He then remains with the female for around three weeks.
The female carries out the pregnancy for 22 months and when parturition (birth) occurs other herd females form a circle around the pregnant one. She assumes a squatting position while giving birth, and the birth takes around 2 hours.
In regions where large carnivores, such as big cats, prey upon newly born animals the mother forms alliances with other herd members. Mother and associated protectors then blow dust over the new-born calf with their trunks in order to dry it.
Just two hours after birth the calf can stand up and begins to suckle milk from the mother.
The elephants are purely vegetarian. Favored foods include: Bananas, bamboo, berries, mangoes, coconuts, corn, jungle shrubs, palm fruits, sugar cane, wood apples Feronia elephantorum and wild rice.
Eat around 200-300 Kg food per day Drink about 150 liters of water.
The elephants digestion system is quite inefficient and only around 50% of the food eaten is utilized.
In western Zoos they are often fed bread and have developed a taste for this
type of food. Salt is essential and the elephant shows a distinct liking for it.
Cold climates cause stomach aches.
Some elephants will even peel fruit before eating.
The Thai white elephant is very particular about eating and will not consume any food that has fallen on the ground and will not eat with the rest of the herd.
Related Animal Species :
Historically there were some 300 different species that belonged to this category. These included mastodons, mammoths and pygmy elephants believed to have died out in Southern Thailand in the early 1920’s. All other members of the proboscidea animal are now extinct.
The nearest current relative to elephants are the dugong and manatees, sometimes referred to as sea cows, which belong to the sirenia order. Fossil and other scientific studies indicate that in a geological time-frame that this is a fairly recent branching off from a common ancestor.
Asian Elephant History
During ancient time, elephants roamed freely throughout Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Prior to the 18th century they were the main machine of Southeast Asian war, a Thai king of the late 17th century having had 20,000 war elephants trained for battle. This feature of War Elephants was most renowned in the 300-year-war between Burma and Thailand which resulted in Burma’s sacking of Ayutthaya in 1767.
Famous as the strongest beasts of burden, in Thailand they were important in battle, as kings road elephants to battle fighting the Burmese to defend Thailand on many occasions. They have also been noted for their intelligence, memory and pleasant nature. A Thai legend has it that a marriage is like an elephant– the husband is the front legs, that choose the direction, the wife the back legs, providing the power!
A white elephant is even included in the flag of the Royal Thai navy, and the “order of the white elephant” is one of the highest honours, bestowed by the king. White elephants, in fact, are very rarely completely white. The skin has to be very pale in certain areas to qualify as a “white elephant”.
The myth and legend of the white elephant began in Southeast Asia
In the story of the Buddha, the white elephant is connected to fetility and to
knowledge. On the eve of giving birth to the Lord Buddha, his mother dreams that a white elephant comes to present her with a lotus, symbol of purity and knowledge.
At the heart of the first great Southeast Asian Empire, at the Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the might of the war elephants is depicted on murals of the region’s armies.
Over the next few hundred years, two states dominated the region – the
forerunners of modern Burma and Thailand (Siam). In both, the elephant was a very important animal. It was key to military success – both in mass battles, and in the elephant duels.
It was also key to royal pageantry – kings chose the biggest, most magnificent
elephants for royal ceremonies and processions. Kings and courtiers spent a lot of time and energy hunting elephants from the forests. And the most powerful kings kept thousands in their stables.
The Royal White Elephant
The white elephant was something above an ordinary elephant. It had sacred power. It was the mount of the war god. It brought fertility. For the kings of Burma and Siam, the possession of these sacred beasts became very important. A king who had many, fine white elephants would be successful – his kingdom would prosper and his reign be long. If his white elephants died, it foretold disaster for king and kingdom.
This was set out in a Buddhist text, the “Three Worlds” says:
“The magnificent king has seven things: a perfect wife, and able treasurer, a wise chief minister, a swift horse, a wheel of the law and a precious gem to guide his actions: and the most noble of white elephants.”
The kings hunted eagerly for these fine and special beasts. Occasionally they
presented them to one another as marks of diplomacy. Sometimes they fought over them. And always they looked after them well – because their rule depended on it.
The Royal White Elephants were not taken to war, and not ridden in procession, Rather they were kept within the confines of the palace, entrusted to the care of senior officials, fed well, washed regularly, and worried over constantly.
When the British envoy came to Amarapura in 1855, Mr. C. Grant, the artist, drew beautiful pictures of the royal white elephant Nibbana. Grant also made an eyewitness account of the noble beast as follow: “The colour of the animal was a cream very slight dun, his magnificent tusks nearly touch the ground. He was in bands of crimson cloth or velvet and gold, studded with large bosses of gold, margined with innumerable rubies,…”
By the nineteenth century, the white elephant was firmly established as one of the special wonder of Siam. The American Frank Vincent titled his book on Southeast Asia, The Land of the White Elephant,
The Norwegian traveler, Carl Bock, starts his book of Siam with a description of the king’s white elephant. He also made a painting of the animal. But the attendants were dismayed that in the painting the elephant didn’t look fair enough. So they washed the animal with tamarind-water for several days and asked Bock back to redo the painting. Bock admitted that the color had changed: “So I made a second watercolor drawing… so that my readers can form a correct idea of a real “white elephant”, for this was acknowledged to be the fairest ever caught at least within living memory.”
From Burma too, came reports of the kings’ extravagant care for white elephants. Though his favorite white elephant was clearly dying, the last Burmese king, Thibaw, loaded him with treasures, making him the wealthiest
individual in the country. His forehead was decked with a spray of diamonds to ward off evil spirits. Diamonds were set into each tusk. A golden plaque, inscribed with his titles, Jung from his head. From his ears hung golden pendants. Four golden umbrellas protected him from the heat of the sun. Above his gold feeding trough, a mirror specially ordered from France was installed to reflect his splendor.
Yet the white elephant died. The pundits predicted plagues, floods, earthquakes. But the real disaster was more prosaic. The British took over Burma and deposed the king.
In neighboring Siam, the kings still revered the white elephant. Indeed, they put the white elephant on their new flag.
But with elephants no longer so vital for warfare, elephant hunts had become less common, and fewer of the rare white elephants were found. The Siamese king passed a law demanding that any white elephant found in the kingdom had to be presented to the king. He sent out scouting parties and offered rewards.
The discovery of a white elephant became a special event, a time for national celebration. The surgeon Finlayson arrived in Bangkok just after one discovery in the 1820s. With a scientist’s eye, he noted they were not “snow white” oddities, but a kind of albino. And rather than spinning stories of gold mats, he noted they were well kept, in gold condition and clean surroundings
Thirty years later, Sir John Bowring also arrived in Bangkok a few days after a newly found white elephant had been welcomed to the capital in a glorious procession down the river. He was escorted to the corrals and shown the prized animal.
After Sir John had negotiated the main trade treaty between Britain and Siam, the Siamese king sent to Queen Victoria a tuft of the white elephant’s hairs; and to Sir John himself, a few hairs from the tail. Unfortunately the elephant died soon after, and Sir John received another gift, described by the king as “a portion of her white skin with beautiful body hairs preserved in spirit. I trust it will be an article of curiosity.” Sir John passed it on to the Museum of the Zoological Society.
Both the king with whom Sir John negotiated (King Mongkut), and his son King Chualongkorn, were great modernizers. They welcomed foreigners. They pushed forward reforms which helped Siam to escape colonialism and emerge as a modern nation. But being modern reformers did not mean abandoning the white elephant. After all, both King Mongkut’s father and grandfather had died only shortly after their own treasured white elephants had passed away. When King Mongkut’s white elephant was sick, he nursed it back to health, and himself lived for another 14 years.
King Mongkut also wrote a manual describing the mnay points of a perfect white elephant – including yellow eyes, white nails, pinkish skin, white hairs, and a beautiful snore. The beauty of a woman can not be catalogued like this, he noted, because men have differing tastes. But the beauty of white elephant is more definite.
When King Mongkut heard that America had no elephants, he offered to send some over.
“If on the continent there should be several pairs of young male and female elephants turned loose in the forest where there was an abundance of water and … if the climate there should prove favorable to an elephant, we are of opinion that after a while they will increase till the inhabitants of America will be able to catch them and tame and use them as beasts of burden making them of benefit of the country”
President Lincoln replied that the American climate was probably unsuitable, and that they preferred to use steam power. But he thanked the Siamese king for the gift of two magnificent elephant tusks.
King Mongkut’s son, King Chulalongkorn traveled to Europe in 1907. One of his German hosts had heard about the Siamese love for the white elephant. He hired a local artists to make a flag with a white elephant and hang it all around the house where the king was lodged.
The King thanked him very much for the thought. It had made him feel very much at home. But it was a pity the artist had probably never seen an elephant. The animal on the flag looked more like a cow. He would send them a proper elephant. What he meant by this was the Order of the White Elepahnt – a decoration granted by the king for service to the state.
When Siamese envoys traveled to England and had audience with Queen Victoria. They were most impressed with her appearance:
” One can not but be struck with the aspect of the august Queen of England, or fail to observe that she must be from a race of godly and warlike kings and rulers of the earth, in that her eyes, complexion, and above all her bearing , are those of a beautiful and majestic white elephant.”
In the Brahman text, The seven specific good attributes which the white elephants must have are:
1. A white or pinkish color around the cornea of the eyes.
2. The roof of the mouth white or pink and unridged.
3. White or pink toenails.
4. White or light brown hair that is transparent when held up to light. Two or more body hairs
growing out of one follicle.
5. The sking must be white, pink ,light brown, or light grey.
6. The tale’s hair must be long.
7. White or pink genitals.
There are many more details about the attributes of white elephant
In the past, wild elephants were captured and trained. The city of Mae Hong Sorn was founded as a stockade for newly caught elephants, since that region had a high elephant population. Today, the number of elephants has declined so rapidly that the entire domesticated stock are one or more generations from their wild forebears. There are still a few thousand wild elephant in northern Thailand, in remote jungle south west of Chiangmai.
White Elephant Today
In Laos, after the new form of government came into power, the king was put into the working commune and died a few years after that. One of the king’s white elephant was kept in the zoo near Vientiane. This one the royal officer from Thailand got a chance to see it and he said that it does not meet all the major characteristics of a royal white elephant, mentioned in the ancient text:
Another white elephant of a better attributes is kept somewhere close to the house of the government’s leader. This one seem to meet all the major characteristics of the royal white elephant as you may see in the above pictures. This elephant will lead the parade every year during Songkran festival (Thailand and Loas’ New Year, on the 13th of April) in Vientiane. It would be dressed up in the old traditional maner.
In Cambodia, the last white elephant was seen and taken picture in the royal palace during the1960’s. After that, the civil war in Cambodia took place for many years, and nobody have seen or heard any thing about white elephant ever since.
In Vietnam, white elephants were mentioned in the history on and off, but there are no records of the white elephant being found.
The white elephants are very rare today, due to the change in politic of the countries in Southeast Asia. In Burma or Myanmar, white elephant do not exist anymore. The last white elephant in Burma was found in 1961 in Intawgyi District of Kachin State, Norther Burma. It was a male elephant. The white elephant spent first few months in its homeland and was moved to Yangon Zoo for public interest.
It’s complexion was not actually white but pinkish like a Scandinavian’s. And the hairs growing thinly all over the body were all white and shiny. It was reported that the elephant had all the major characteristics of a royal white elephant, mentioned the ancient scriptures:
Despite its regality, the elephant didn’t receive a VIP treatment later. Besides, the mother elephant was left in the timber production site in the northern Myanmar. The young white elephant therefore was looked after by a nurse elephant of ordinary colour. To make matters worse, he didn’t enjoy the publicity he received every day in the zoo and the food quality didn’t seem to be in accordance with the needs of the royal elephant either. Finally, he died an ordinary death in 1971 and has been put into oblivion since then.
White elephants’ sculptures, paintings, wood craves, murals and archives can be found just about any places you can imagine in Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand. You can find it in the temples, palaces, tourist souvenirs, and many other products. Some of the paintings which you will see in the following pages are among the oldest and the most famous collection.
The Forestry Department uses trained elephants to extract illegal stores of teak logs, which poachers keep in remote areas where the use of vehicles would be impossible. Most elephants nowadays, however, are used to carry tourists around and perform shows for spectators. This is a little kinder job for the gentle giants. Elephant trekking in the jungles of Thailand is a unforgettable experience. Tamed and well-trained, big, gentle and graceful – the Thai elephant. They can be your best friend.
Elephant calves begin their training when they are about four years old. They quickly learn and obey the words of command. They get to know their driver (mahout), and get used to being mounted and dismounted. For the first month they are kept restrained in a wooden ‘crush’ while they learn the basics.
Later, they learn more complex instructions needed to work with teak logs, including kneeling, picking things up, dragging, rolling, pushing, carrying etc. By the age of ten, they are ready for ‘graduation’, and the work of an adult. A working elephant can lift 700kg, and haul two tons of wood one kilometre without a break. Their natural walking speed is about 4km per hour. They reach their physical peak at 25 years old, and work until they are 60 years old, then they are retried and set free.
Talent for a stately presence, for delicate foot movement and agility, for intelligence on the field of sport, and at the same time a particular gentleness that makes the elephant not only a highly respected creature but also one that is appreciated and loved.
Elephant Racing – 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 taught 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 an elegant performance of step, turn and curve.
Elephant Sports – Elephants have a special talent for sports. They have their own games in the privacy of the forest and are often very competitive, but they play sports they are taught too. One of these is a competitive race on an obstacle course, where each elephant is required to pick up various items along the way, hold these with his trunk, and return them to the finish line . In one of Thailand’s elephant training centers, the objects are Coke bottles . Another sport the elephants are taught to play is elephant football. In this game the elephants toss around a rather large ball, using their trunks and competing to see who can score the highest. These are fun sports for the elephant and require a little more thought than their traditional water games of spraying themselves and others.
Elephant Dance – they love music. In Thailand, elephants are trained to perform dance routines to various numbers in the rock, jazz and folk categories. Their trainers line them up and when the music begins they receive the command to start. They sway and prance to the rhythm, trunks swinging, feet keeping time with the beat, and heads swaying to and fro. When the music changes, they’re steps change with it, perhaps from a fast tempo to a slow, melancholy waltz. The elephant’s preference for music and talent for dance are excellent.
Elephant Friendship – Elephants, like people, place a high value on friendship. In any elephant group the elephants tend to pair up and stay very close together with their friends. They have their likes and dislikes, In a caravan or on a trek, the mahouts have to take special care in lining up the elephants before departure. They are placed one behind the other so that friends are together. If an elephant is placed apart from his friend, he will likely refuse to budge and the caravan will not move. Elephant friendship becomes most obvious when the female is about ready to give birth. She searches out her friend and solicits help in delivery. This the friend does willingly, and even helps separate the placenta from the newborn baby.
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