ELEPHANT CONSERVATION CENTER, THAILAND

Mahout School

May 21

We went to the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre near Lampang to do a one day crash course to become an amateur mahout (elephant keeper). Our experience there was one we will always remember and we gained a new love and respect for the elephant.

The elephants of Thailand are in distress. As the last centenary continues to fade into memories unfortunately so does the economic need for elephants.

100 years ago there was over 100,000 domestic elephants in Thailand. Used as the heavy lifting equipment of the day, these elephants hauled the precious teak wood to sell to The West. They worked on the farm hand in hand with farmers to put food on plates, they helped build bridges, houses, railway lines and in Military service along side human soldiers helping keep Thailand independent.

Sadly the glory days of the elephant have gone. With the invention of better and better machines and the outlawing of logging in 1989 there has ceased to be an economic place for the thousands of elephants.

Estimates vary and experts disagree but there are roughly 6000 elephant now in Thailand.

The Elephant Conservation Center was established principally to conserve Thai Elephants now that these majestic animals are no longer needed and often uncared for. This excellent centre, which houses about 70 elephants, also promotes education about elephants.

We drove our rental jeep from Chiang Mai, arriving at the camp around 9:30. While we were waiting for our guide to arrive a large scorpion ventured across the lot. When we mentioned our experience, we were told that "no worry, those big ones good to eat!"

Our guide was a friendly young Thai named Daeng.  We were issued our Mahout suits, baggy blue trousers that wrap around and tie and matching blue jacket. At first I couldn't figure out how to wear the shapeless slab of fabric and put it on backwards! Not the latest in fashion statements but we had some dirty work ahead!
Our first lessons included an education about Asian elephants and how they differ from African elephants. Asian elephants have smaller ears, a lumpy head, 4 toes instead of 5, a different profile and more. Among some of the interesting things we learned was that elephants only sleep 3-4 hours each night.

Elephant Language

We were taught a basic understanding of the relationship between the elephant and its mahout.

The mahouts use a command language consisting of about 40 words to train the elephants. Some commands we learned were:

Go - Pai

Slow down - goy

stop -  how

turn - bane

walk backwards - soke

Bow head - tack long

Lie down  - none long

  Before we got to meet our elephants, we partook in a ceremony to honor and pay our respects to the Almighty Elephant, revered as being only one below man in the Buddha religion.

As we were learning how to communicate, an elephant lazily watched us nearby.

We prayed for good luck too!

Now, time for the introductions. It was necessary that the elephants got to know our scent and voices if they were to cooperate in our mahout training experience. We talked gently to them, stroked their trunks but I think it was the bundles of sugar cane we offered that finally did the trick.

Gord's elephant was a large male, known to be aggressive on occasion! There are two kind of male elephants and this one had the shorter tusks. My giant was a female, about 15 years old.

All Aboard!

We spent an hour learning how to get on and off the elephants and trying out the commands we had learned. Firstly was to instruct our elephants to kneel down while we climbed on its foreleg. Then the trick was to grab an ear with one hand and a roll of hide with the other. Sounds easy until you try and climb aboard a 3 meter high elephant!

I lost my dignity when the mahout had to give me a mighty shove and I wiggled and squirmed atop the elephant's massive head.

Okay! Now I don't feel so bad. Gord needed a little extra boost as well on his first attempt. It is a long way up there. Once you get your balance then you need to maneuver around and slide right up on the bony part of the head so your legs are just behind the elephant's ears, knees bent up to command by kicking in the right spot. NOT comfortable!!

On again, off again!

A really fun way to dismount was when the elephant bent forward and you slide down her trunk to the ground. I had that command down pat in no time. All you had to do was put your legs over the eyes and say "tack long" and down you'd go!


But when this was followed by the vaulting on over the head trick, I couldn't get the hang of it! Of course, Gord thought it was easy!

Even with a running start, I foolishly tried and tried in vain to vault on, my patient elephant probably thinking that there were better ways to make a living than having someone jump all over your head and knee you in the eye! I finally sequestered the help of the mahout to get aboard. But it was still a major challenge to get turned around once I got up there!
It was so much easier to get the elephant to lie down and scramble up using her bent knee as a step. Then the ele would just stand up while you tried to hang on.  It was by far the easiest way to get on and off!
We gave the elephants a break and treated them to some sugar cane. Our mahout would fling a piece up to us, we would hold it out, and somehow the elephants knew exactly where to grab the canes with their trunks. It was like they had eyes in those very prehensile appendages.

Now that we were proficient in getting on and off our beasts, it was time to head for the jungle. Our mahouts started out walking in front. We thought that riding elephants would be easy for us, given both our backgrounds as horse trainers. But being high up there is a totally different experience. You feel like you are doing the splits, the elephant's head is so wide. And the rough hide rolls from side to side with each slow shambling step; there is nothing to hang on to, you just have to move your hips with the motion to keep from falling off. Keeping your legs high enough to kick the elephant behind the ears gets exhausting, you feel like a jockey without stirrups! Note, there are absolutely no overweight mahouts! And talk about operating the ultimate off road vehicle!

We quickly learned that the elephants would obey you only if they felt like it and could pretty well do whatever they wanted, despite our shouting the commands we had learnt. A 2 ton giant definitely rules here. My elephant kept wandering off the path to snatch a bite to eat, stripping the leaves from the trees as she went, all the while probably laughing at me and my attempts to stop her.

When we reached our destination, Daenug took us for  lunch, which was included in the training fee. We chose Basil Chicken, but when our meals arrived they were so covered in flies that we weren't sure what we ordered. Fighting off the flies, we discovered that the lunch was absolutely delicious, Thai spicy supreme!

Elephant Hospital

After a lengthily ride through the jungle and along the river, we reached the Veterinary section that is attached to the Conservation Center. The Elephant Hospital treats and cares for sick elephants that have often suffered when they are not cared for properly. Among the patients was a Mamma and the cutest baby elephant.

A patient of the Elephant Hospital had a tragic accident when it stepped on a landmine. The foot was still badly mangled and the animal had been cared for by the hospital for 3 years.

Another elephant turned on his handler after years of abuse and was consequently shot in the leg. Because of its past mistreatment, it was very hard to gain the elephant's trust enough to treat it.

Bio-gas Plant

In the true sense of the meaning of Conservation Center, the cooking gas used at the camp is made from the elephant dung.

Elephant Parade

Two elephants carried a drum supported by a stick and a third elephant beat the drum. Other elephants held and waved flags.

Elephant Show

The elephants put on a little show demonstrating their talents including doing some hat tricks. But the purpose of the performance was really to demonstrate how the elephants are being trained to work in the traditional logging methods to maintain their heritage and importance to the history of Thailand.

Cooling off on a Hot Day

Afterward, the elephants are taken to the river for their daily bath. The mahouts perch on their backs and scrub them down. Elephants really enjoy the water and are actually good swimmers.

Sa Paper

The center is known also for its Sa Paper, made from elephant dung. This paper is exported all over the world.

On average an elephant will eat 200-250kg of food a day….. from that they get 50kg of dung. One elephant provides enough dung to make 115 sheets of paper.

The dung is washed, boiled for 5 hours, then spun to cut fibres The dung is bleached for 3 hours. Phosphoric acid is added. Oh boy, I get to put my hands in a bucket of dung and make paper! The first step is to make equal size balls...
...sift evenly into frame.. ...carefully lift out frame... ...set out to dry in the sun for a day... ....remove the paper from frame... ....sand  to a smooth finish... ...roll through press...
and VOILA!!! Elephant Dung Paper. Check out www.elephantdungpaper.com

Time to head back to camp

Our mahouts were tired so caught a ride with us. We rode in the river most of the way back with the intention of giving our elephants a bath before retiring them.

However, it started to rain buckets. We were soaked, the elephants no longer needed a bath! We were okay with that because we were so stiff and sore we could hardly move!!!

The rain didn't deter the flies that covered the elephants. We spent a lot of time trying to wipe the flies away, which left smears of blood where they had been relentlessly biting.

We finally arrived back at the camp, soaked to the skin. We treated the elephants to some sugar cane leaves.


Tired, Sore and Certified!

We were each awarded our diploma, made from Sa Paper of course, stating that we were certified amateur mahouts!

We said goodbye to our terrific guide Daeng, and the patient mahouts who taught us so much. We gained the experience of a lifetime!  

We drove back to Chiang Mai to get ready for our trek to Mae HongSon to visit Northern Thailand the following day.




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