Unorthodox papermaking helps a Thai elephant refuge
Elephant-dung pages dispose of a massive waste problem profitably.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Some people look at a pile of elephant dung and see a big waste-disposal problem. Wanchai Asawawibulkij looks at the same pile and sees ... paper. And a way to help elephants in his native Thailand.
The elephant is Thailand’s national animal and it holds a special place in the hearts of citizens. But the elephant population is dwindling here. According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand, there were 100,000 elephants in the country in 1900 and only about 4,000 today. Of these, only about 1,500 live in the wild, and their numbers are decreasing by 5 to 10 percent annually.
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Throughout Thai history, elephants and humans have lived symbiotically. Many elephants were domesticated and used to log the once-abundant forests, ironically contributing to their own demise in the wild by destroying habitat. When the decimated forests became protected in 1989, many elephants were out of work and some lived in unhealthy conditions. Rescue and conservation centers were set up to help the elephants.
The Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC) here, founded in 1993, was formerly a timber organization that restructured itself “to provide work for our ex-logging elephants after the government banned logging in natural forests,” says TECC adviser Richard Lair. The TECC, located near the northern city of Chiang Mai, has since grown to help conserve elephant populations through ecotourism.
The resident elephants – most of them ex-loggers but some donated or born at the center – are taken care of and in return are trained to interact with tourists but only in ways that are beneficial to both the animals and humans.
Mr. Asawawibulkij used to spend his days as a paralegal in Bangkok but nurtured a desire to do something to “save nature and help the elephants,” he says. Along the way he became interested in handmade paper, a traditional Thai art. On a visit to the TECC he saw the vast piles of dung and the idea of making paper just came to him.
One must hasten to explain that the dung is washed and sanitized thoroughly. The elephant’s diet is mostly vegetation, much of it very fibrous, and most of which does not break down completely in the elephant’s gut. The mass of softened fibers is what makes elephant dung a papermaker’s dream.
Asawawibulkij spent two years perfecting the process, then quit his job and launched Elephant Dung Paper in 2001.