Smiling at Elephants

Peregrina's Journey
Peter and Margie Benziger
Thu 8 Mar 2012 08:10
07:53.0N    98:24.0E

Did you know elephants can smile?

Neither did Margie and I until we visited and elephant camp outside Chaing Mai in northern Thailand. It took a two hour truck ride and an hour hike through rice fields to arrive but the elephant’s smile was worth it!

The elephant is a very powerful figure in Thai culture. Elephant images can be found in religious statues, wood carvings and paintings. The elephant even appeared on the Thai national flag until 1917. Elephants represent power and peace. They are also key to royal pageantry. Kings chose the biggest, most magnificent elephants for royal ceremonies and processions.

National Elephant Day “Chaang Thai  is celebrated each year to honor, support and pay respect to this wonderful animal which is so much part of Thailand's heritage and culture.

When we visited a WAT (Buddhist Temple) in Prae, we came across a courtyard of elephant statues.

Even in public parks you will come across elephant tributes. This round circle had over 1000 elephant statues.

The elephant is an awesome form of jungle transport because they have wide feet which distribute their weight without crushing the ground. The bottoms of their feet are just huge!  With the combined surface area of all four feet, elephants actually put less weight on the ground per square centimeter than a deer!

 Margie and I rode an elephant along a river bottom and down a muddy slope and the enormous feet kept us going where a brand new $50,000 four wheel drive Jeep would have gotten stuck fast. And don’t underestimate the top speed because an elephant can run at up to 23 kilometers per hour for short distances. 

Elephants were the super weapon of south Asian armies before the advent of tanks and big guns. Large platforms were mounted on the elephants from which spears and arrows were launched. It is interesting to know that in the late 17th century a Thai King had 20,000 war elephants trained for battle.  Can you imagine the sight of a full grown war elephant running at 23 kilometers per hour into an opposing group of solders simply standing on the jungle floor?

For centuries, the elephant’s main work has been in the forest pushing, pulling and carrying logs. One advantage is that you don’t have to build a road for elephants…they can go wherever they want!  A “mahout” is an elephant caretaker/trainer.  Since elephants have a working life of more than 50 years, on average, a mahout father and son will often train a baby elephant together so that, when the father is too old, the son can continue working with the adult elephant.
729 08 Elephant and enormous log resized.jpg

Modern logging technology and a reduction in illegal logging in Thailand means unemployment for many elephants.  As the economic incentive to keep elephants has diminished, the elephant population has fallen. In addition, large numbers of bull elephants have been killed for their ivory tusks. In 1900, there were approximately 100,000 elephants in Thailand, in 1952 there were 14,000 and by 2000 the number had fallen to 5,800 elephants.
So now is a good time to learn more about elephants since they seem to be packing their trunks and heading for elephant heaven. Did you know that elephants…
-Weigh about 3.5 tons
-Have skin so sensitive they can feel a fly on it
-Live to be 90 years old
-Carry up to 2 tons of load pushing and pulling trees
-Eat around 250 kilograms of various foods and drink 200 liters of water a day
-Sleep only 4 hours a day (because they must eat 20 hours per day)
-Lay down to sleep but do not use a pillow
Now that you know more about elephants, I recommend you take the time to go for an elephant ride.  Here is a picture of our friends Jim and Barbara taken from the elephant we were riding in front of them.

So, next time you see an elephant, give him/her a big smile. They will, undoubtedly, smile back. You won’t forget that elephant’s super-sized grin and, as you know, an elephant will never forget a friendly face either!