Elephants and Man
By: J. Marlando
It’s been some time ago but back in the 1980’s I was given the opportunity of a lifetime. The phone rang and the voice on the other end told me that a study and documentary of elephants was planned and they were still seeking a writer. Was I interested? I was jumping up and down. I had had experiences working with lots of exotic animals, including elephants, so the thought of seeing them in the wild was exciting to me.
After the call my wife and I celebrated the new job and within the month, I was on my way to Hong Kong, our final stop before Bangkok, our destination.
Bangkok is much akin to other big cities—Los Angeles, Milano, you name it there is a coldness beneath its feigned warmth and welcoming smile. We stayed in Bangkok for a little over a week preparing for our trip across the country in a bus driven by a local driver. Things are not always as they seem of course: I learned that we had been separated into two small teams. One would go to Africa and the other Thailand. I was on the Asian team so my excitement of seeing Africa went by the wayside.
Anyway, as it is even in America, the further into the country one gets the nicer people become and so it is in Thailand. Indeed, the Thai people in general are sincerely warm and welcoming; a handsome people really and a people that I came to like and admire.
This narrative sets out to share some of the highlights of that adventure and perhaps to give you a brand new view of elephants.
The Elephant Roundup
We left Bangkok in the late evening and it was soon enough dark out as we continued along the country road toward Surin, our first destination. The road we were on was quite desolate and I only remember passing sparse traffic as we sped along through the night. Back then, drivers were in love with speed and traveled far too fast for many of the curvy roads. As a quick aside, I remember seeing buses packed with people as you see heredriving along a mountain road no slower than sixty miles per-hour. It was frightening to watch and we learned a bus like we’d seen, just as packed with people had gone off the road and killed most of the passengers. Our driver was not much more conscientious than this but after all, his pride in driving was a heavy foot on the gas pedal.
We were forced to slow up and stop, however. Seemingly appearing from nowhere were a line of five or six soldiers standing across the highway with their machine guns held in a readied position. They looked pretty frightening in the beams of the bus’s headlights. Anyway, the bus stopped, the door swung open and the soldiers entered without a word. They went through our luggage and left. What were they after? I never knew for sure but I assumed they might have been seeking drugs. Drugs were highly illegal then and a person might be hanged for being caught with them.
We reached Surin, a small town near the Cambodian border safely. Surin back then was a one horse town—sorry, a one “elephant” town I should say. There were some shops, a few food places and a small hotel or two but little more. (I was shocked to see a more recent picture of the place now sporting a McDonald’s).
Below looks far more like the Surin I remember
We spent the night in a hotel and the next day we attended the Elephant Roundup a most famous event held once a year in Surin.
The Elephant Roundup is a kind of rodeo with elephants. For one thing this area of Thailand is known for rounding up wild elephants, training and taming them. Surin in fact is often called “the province of elephants.”
The “roundup” has great pageantry and is elegantly colorful: One of the highlights of the show is to demonstrate how elephants were once used in warfare There is a mock battle performed which always pleases the crowd. Also, the elephants are shown off in a game of soccer. It’s incredible to witness the agility of the pachyderms in play. As a matter of interest the mahouts (drivers) often teach their elephants over 30 commands with each being remembered in detail by the intelligent and faithful pachyderms.
The show also includes a tug of war between vast numbers of human men against one elephant: the elephant always wins which gives the audience a great laugh but on the more serious side—the working elephant and all his skills and knowledge is also demonstrated—professional sawyers of the timber industry are typically highly dependent on their elephants. Oh, another thing is that the elephant festival does not lack for beautiful women either and it simply isn’t farfetched to say that Thailand has some of the most beautiful women on the planet.
After watching the incredible show we were on the road again.
We traveled a lot of miles crisscrossing Thailand after leaving Surin and saw numbers of ancient temples and the masterful mural art as the one below.
The photograph was taken by Kamnuan
Theravada (or Hinayana) Buddhism is the state religion but there is religious freedom in Thailand where Islam, Christianity and Hinduism are also practiced.
Because I had been a student of meditation and seeker of what some called “Christ/Buddha Consciousness” I was especially interested in the religious side of ThailandOne of the reasons why Thailand has stayed at peace with itself and, by and large, with others over the millenniums, is because their religious beliefs teach that love and compassion are at the center of the joyful life; and that eliminating desire leads to peace of mind. What I especially found appealing was the Thai’s empirical lifestyle—unlike other religions Buddhism is free of dogma and is extremely tolerant and flexible when it comes to morality, ethics and even philosophy. People are given their own volition to find the right path for themselves.
We did not see elephants as we zigzagged our way toward Chang Mai, but the further north we did chance to see—in the distance—a group of elephants resembling the ones seen here
that we assumed were wild on some reserve. After watching them until they disappeared into the distance, we continued on.
At long last we reached Chang Mai where we would headquarter in a small motel. My first major cultural shock occurred there. The bathroom in my room looked similar to this primarily a mere hole in the floor demanding one to squat as opposed to sit. That took some getting used to! After a few weeks we moved into a better hotel though and that situation changed…a little!
We went out daily to shoot as we wanted to create a documentary that somehow captured the heart and mind of the people as well as the elephants. One thing for sure they both have in common is that they are cooperative. The Thais are a cooperative people and the elephants there have a similar nature. The world could learn from both!
I finally got lucky and was assigned to stay in a small, jungle village just on the other side of the Burmese border (now known as Myanmar). I loved it there and the people were truly wonderful. Indeed, we ate rice from a community bowl in the evening and later drank whiskey sitting around the campfires after eating the evening meal. I say “whiskey” because they called it that but actually the drink was made almost daily and fermented for only two hours. Anyway, while we could not understand each other’s language, we had a great time exchanging hand signals and finding things to smile and laugh about. The Thai people laugh a lot!
Here are some scenes of the working elephants as seen every day.
By the way, working elephants are very demanding. They will refuse to work if not allowed to take their morning baths as this one is doing.
We’ll talk more directly about elephants next.
I learned a great deal about elephants while in Thailand. For example, if an elephant misbehaves he is sentenced to a period of abandonment by the herd; left to sulk in his own misery so to speak. There is some controversy about elephant’s feelings but I have personally seen elephants suffer remorsea lot of food for thought in the observation!
Elephants are extremely social even though males tend to wonder off on their own when living in the wild while elephant moms live in family herds. This is probably due to the elephant’s heavy demand for food. After all, when a cow gives birth, the offspring is already 200 pounds or so and it will not be long before they too are eating on their own. In the meantime, baby elephantsnurse for the first two years of their lives.
Elephants, incidentally, eat roots, fruit, bark and grass and can easily consume between 250 and 300 pounds of food a day. Yet, man and elephant have been interacting since the elephants domestication in 325/25 BC. The first domestication is said to be in the Indus Valley of India. See map below:
Soon after domestication elephants were used in battle.
It is said that Indian king Porus had 200 elephants in his army but in time they came to be worshipped. Ganesh for example, is one of the most beloved amidst all the Hindu Deities. It is said that he is Lord of all Beginnings and brings good fortune. I have a statue—similar to the one here—in both my house and yard! After all, doesn’t every moment have the potential of being a new beginning?
Not all elephants are beloved of course: While in Asia I was told that wild elephants often destroy farm crops and even kill a few dozen villagers annually. Like the rest of us a hungry elephant can become very testy but the real problem is that so-called civilized man and most wild animals have never been able to co-exist in the same environments. After all, we actually live in two different realities; our worlds are simply different. (Recall how our kind most virtually killed off the American buffalo just for the “fun” of killing whereas the so-called uncivilized American Indian lived with the buffalo for thousands and thousands of years in the same environment and in the same loop of surviving together).
Today even the Indian elephant is on the endangered list. Not only have they been hunted down and murdered for their ivory (highly against the law now, yet still practiced) but the their natural habitats keep being reduced as civilization spreads its massive wings over more and more ground; the jungles and even the deserts like the rain forests are slowly being destroyed by commerce if not simply by expanding human populations.
The elephant is our planet’s largest land animal and in the cause of true morality and human ethics should be protected from going the way of the American Buffalo, a perfect example of unnecessary destruction of a species through the calloused hearts and hands of people.
I recall flying out of Bangkok and leaving all those wonderful experiences behind. I had grown close to the people and yes, to the elephants. I realize life is not the same there as it was even 30 years ago just as life is not the same wherever our kind has made its home. I only hope that the story of elephants and man evolves into a more loving and lasting relationship.
If you enjoyed this article, you will probably enjoy, Animals: Their mind, heart and soul. Click below.