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In the hands of babes: Thai elephants’ future

A new generation of mahouts – some as young as 7, and as lightweight as 50 pounds – bend the will of the massive beast.

By Tibor KrauszCorrespondent / February 26, 2009

Mahouts in training: Chompoo (left) and Goh guide their pachyderms at the Royal Elephant Kraal in Ayutthaya, the historic capital of Thailand.

Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor

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Ayutthaya, Thailand

Dok Mak is old enough to be Goh’s great-grandma and her head alone dwarfs the boy. She eats his weight for breakfast and can easily lift a tree trunk many times his size.

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Right now, though, on the pint-size boy’s command, the matronly pachyderm obediently lifts a leg – with Goh standing on it. Goh grabs Dok Mak’s droopy ear and hoists himself astride her bulky neck. He rides the elephant down a well-trodden dirt path to the nearby river for her afternoon bath.

Bunta Santiwong, or “Goh,” is only 11 years old. And he weighs only 55 lbs. But he’s already an expert at tending and handling jumbos. “I was little when I started riding elephants with my dad,” the boy explains. He sports the traditional topknot of Thai preadolescents and scampers around barefoot. “My friends in school think it’s cool I live with elephants.”

Goh goes to a primary school here in Thailand’s historic capital, 50 miles north of Bangkok. After his classes, the fifth-grader returns to the Royal Elephant Kraal and Village, a privately owned shelter for 150 pachyderms, where his family lives in a simple rattan hut. Goh’s father is a mahout; he rides and tends elephants. The boy is learning to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Youngsters like him may hold the future for Thailand’s elephants. When Dok Mak was Goh’s age, her kind were still esteemed as the nation’s guardians. They numbered in the tens of thousands. In the seven decades since, logging – into which she was once enslaved – decimated forests. Barely any elephants remain in the wild; motor vehicles, meanwhile, robbed domesticated animals of their erstwhile status and utility. Elephants now number only 3,500, with aged tuskers outnumbering the young.

Mahouts, too, have fallen on hard times. Once respected as elite professionals, many now trawl Bangkok streets begging with their animals.

“It’s a dying profession,” laments Ittipan Kharwlamai, the camp’s manager. “If elephants are to have a future in Thailand, we need to train a new generation of mahouts.”

On the riverbank Dok Mak (“betel flower”) waits patiently while Goh, standing on her back, climbs out of his Mickey Mouse-patterned shorts. Wheezing, the elephant ducks under water, her trunk sprouting like a snorkel. Shivering, Goh holds onto her, now grabbing a frond-like ear, now grasping her tail.

Presently, a herd of elephants with a dozen boys riding them wade into the river. The tuskers, trumpeting joyfully, disappear into a frothing mass of bobbing heads as the kids cavort on their backs. Seeking attention, a baby elephant tugs at her mother’s trunk before scurrying ashore.

But life at the elephant kraal isn’t just fun and games for the kids. They learn the skills of elephant handling from older mahouts and tend to the animals daily. Each morning Goh rises with the sun to clean up after assigned elephants, fettered at an ankle to keep them from wandering away, and to “throw grass at them,” as he puts it. After school, he resumes his chores: feeding, cleaning, bathing, and training elephants.

“This isn’t a petting zoo,” Mr. Ittipan says. “Kids like Goh love elephants and don’t mind getting down and dirty with them.”

• • •

A diminutive pixie of a girl, Supawee Samart, or “Chompoo,” is perched atop the massive head of a retired work elephant, her kid-size takaw (bull hook) in hand. “Gep!” (Pick it up!) she yells. “Toi! (Back up!) “Ben!” (Turn!) “Dee mak!” (Well done!)

Following the second-grader’s instructions, Pisamy, an old female, scoops up a trunkful of pineapple plants, and like a forklift, carries her load to feeding elephants. As their elders chomp away noisily, a dozen baby elephants shuffle around, nudging people for treats. Koh Pet, a mischievous 9-month-old calf, raids the pickup truck bearing today’s ration of papaya fruit.

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