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.
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“Elephants are so much fun,” says Chompoo as she hoses Pisamy down and shoots water into her thirsty mouth. (A grown elephant can guzzle down 60 gallons a day.) “The babies brush up against you, rub their heads on you, or wrap their trunks around you.”Skip to next paragraph
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A precocious 7-year-old, Chompoo wants to be a vet and a mahout like Goh, her friend. “I like to think that by treating sick elephants,” she explains seriously, “I will make merit [as a Buddhist]. My grandpa is proud I want to be a girl mahout.”
Then the playful child reemerges as she adds: “I like to teach elephants new skills.” These include playing soccer with a big rubber ball and twirling hula hoops on their trunks.
Chompoo and Goh clamber onto Dok Mak and Pisamy and ride them into an enclosure with thick palisades, its entrance guarded by a gnarled banyan with a large shrine to the spirits of bygone elephants. Until a century ago, the kings of Siam attended lavish roundups here to handpick elephants for the royal stables. More recently, however, in a sad testament to the way these highly intelligent and social animals have fallen in esteem, the historic site lay abandoned, claimed only by weeds and mosquitoes.
The site owes its revival to a young girl like Chompoo. In 1997 Laithongrien Meepan, a shrimp farmer/restaurateur, got his 7-year-old daughter an elephant calf for her birthday. “Six or seven months later,” Mr. Laithongrien recalls, “I realized an elephant can be quite a handful.”
But he was hooked. Laithongrien obtained the unused plot that was once Ayutthaya’s royal kraal, bought several old work elephants to let them retire there, and thought that would be that. Then he bought more elephants, and babies were born.
As Laithongrien’s herd increased, so did his appreciation of the exacting tasks mahoutry entails. “It’s not a job but a lifestyle,” says Laithongrien, who believes he’s a reincarnated Siamese master mahout. His daughter, Ploy, is by now a mahout in her own right. “You can ensure the well-being of elephants only by supporting the people who care for them,” he adds.
His elephant ranch today employs almost 100 mahouts. By attending to an elephant’s needs all day, he explains, a mahout takes on the role of the “matriarch,” the experienced female that leads and protects a family herd in the wild.
At 22, Suram Puangsuk is already an old hand. A shy man from eastern Thailand, he started working with elephants when he was Goh’s age. “I love her like my daughter,” Mr. Suram says, tugging at an earlobe of 5-year-old Kamlai Thong (“golden bracelet”), as the young tusker demonstrates her painting skills. Brush held in trunk, she sketches a watercolor banyan on papyrus made from elephant dung. Her artwork will be sold to tourists for 500 baht ($15).
To earn their keep, mahouts and elephants also star in local and Hollywood epics like Oliver Stone’s “Alexander,” filmed in Thailand, and reenact historic battles with warrior elephants in mobile sound-and-light shows. Goh and Chompoo already have their roles in the latter. “They’re our stars,” Ittipan quips.
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During their afternoon walkabout on elephant back at the onetime site of royal pageantry, Goh drops his bottle of Coke and promptly forgets about it. Like a long-suffering granny, Dok Mak picks it up and carries it for him, even as Goh tries to goad the lumbering pachyderm into a trot.
“You’re not riding a buffalo,” Chompoo teases him from atop Pisamy. She snickers girlishly when Goh leaps across from Dok Mak, slides down Pisamy’s trunk as if on a playground chute, and scampers off to pelt a dust-bathing young elephant nearby with clods of soft earth.
Soon, his boundless energy spent for a moment, the boy lies back on his elephant and stares at the darkening sky.
“I love elephants,” he tells an interloping foreign reporter legging it alongside. “I want to be with them forever.”