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.

Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor
Mahouts in training: Chompoo (left) and Goh guide their pachyderms at the Royal Elephant Kraal in Ayutthaya, the historic capital of 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.

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.

“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.”

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.

• • •

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.”

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