You Should Know About Asian Elephants:
Elephant Size: The Largest land animal on Earth
2.7m (9ft) in height ; Weight 3,200 -
2.3 m (7.5 ft) in height; Weight 2,300 - 4,500
born baby elephants: 0.9m (3ft) in height; weight
Brain: weighs about 5 kg
(4 times the weight of a
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
Elephant Taste: Comparable to all higher animals and can
easily distinguish between unsuitable, suitable and favored
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
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
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
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
Eat around 200-300 Kg food per day Drink about 150 liters
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,
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"
"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.
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
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
serveral 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
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
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
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
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
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
6. The tale's hair must be long.
7. White or pink genitals.
There are many more details about the attributes of white
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
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
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
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
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.