The Elephants of Northern Thailand

My goal was to rescue an abused elephant: to liberate it from a life of abuse at an elephant trek tourist attraction, ride it back to the jungle from whence it came, and set it free. Unfortunately I soon discovered elephants are prohibitively expensive, and there is a lot of red tape involved in elephant transactions. They also do not handle well on the highway.

Rescuing the abused elephants of Northern Thailand is a pretty tall order. Before the logging ban in 1989, most of Thailand’s elephants were kept by members of the Karen hill tribe. The Karen trained the elephants to help them pull lumber from the jungle, and in return, gave them the love, care and respect every domesticated elephant deserves.

With the logging ban, the Karen’s main source of income was outlawed, and most elephant owners could not afford to keep their elephants. Many were sold or leased to work at gimmicky tourist attractions run by people with no understanding of elephants, where they were often beaten, underfed, and overworked.


My original plan to ride an elephant home to freedom was not going to work out, but I was in Chiang Mai for a week, and wanted to check out the situation. A friend and I went to an “Elephant Training Camp” to see what life was like for these poor pachyderms, and to investigate the level of security preventing elephant theft.

The camp we visited didn’t seem to be one of the abusive ones reported all over internet travel forums – the elephants looked happy enough, and we'd been brought here by a reputable ecotourism group. I had brought a bunch of bananas, and soon found that all the stereotypes are true - bananas are like elephant crack, and all elephants are born banana crack babies. Or maybe they were underfed.


Pretty soon our tour group was all loaded up and its just me, my friend, and this one little runty elephant left. He is not only small, but looks slightly defective, like maybe he was hit on the head by one too many falling coconuts. The elephant – who I name Stampy – is only 5 years old, and apparently still learning to walk.

His handler, this young man with a round face and buzz cut hair, keeps yelling MA POOT! MA POOT! at Stampy, which apparently means GOOOOO! But Stampy is not mapooting. He is just standing there.

Then some lady throws a giant bunch of bananas at us, apparently to be used for banana bribery. Stampy immediately smells the bananas, and slaps his trunk backwards on top of his head, spraying flecks of mucus upon his somewhat disgusted riders.

I think Stampy has a cold. I gingerly place a banana in his snot covered appendage and he snatches it, then reluctantly takes a single step forward before catapulting his trunk back on top of his head and halting again.

So we give him another banana. We are rewarded with another single step forward before he reaches back again, painting a trail of wet mucus across the top of his head while feeling around for the next banana. Apparently Stampy thinks this is Elephant Do Whatever You Want Camp, not Elephant Training Camp.

By now we are so far behind the parade of elephants we’re starting to feel a bit alone and abandoned in the jungle. We are out of bananas and Stampy is largely stationary, just sort of swaying in place like a very large grey reed, hinting at his potential for forward movement. Back in their logging days, elephants usually bonded for life with just one person, their caretaker. They don’t do tricks for just anyone, especially when they are mere 5-year-old toddlers.

Our vehicle had clearly broken down, so I hopped off and caught up to the train of grown elephants in about five minutes of walking. I completely understand now, why people were telling me with a completely straight face that elephants are not allowed on the highway. They are slow and dangerously unresponsive. If you are interested in returning an abused elephant to the jungle, know this: you are going to need a very big truck.

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