The Elephants of Ayutthaya

14 Feb

LIKE MANY PEOPLE preparing for a trip abroad, I’d first picked up a guidebook for the country.  In my case, the country was Thailand.  One of the things I was interested in seeing was Thailand’s national symbol: the Asian elephant.  Having lived and worked in the Yellowstone/Grand Teton area for over twenty years, I was curious about these large animals, about half of which were still living in the wild.  After reading up on several places I decided to visit the Ayutthaya Elephant Palace in central Thailand, intrigued by its write-up in the guide:

Some bull elephants that had killed villagers have been retrained and now provide tourist rides around the ruins.

I didn’t want to ride the elephants so much as I wanted to know why they’d gone berserk (and whether they might again).

Logging had been banned in Thailand in the late 1980s, leaving many of the domesticated elephants stranded as unemployable squatters.  As these animals require upwards of 650 pounds of food every day, they had gone from being beasts of burden to burdensome beasts.  I read about mistreatment and how many of these former working elephants were being taken from their more natural environs to work in unfamiliar and upsetting surroundings like noisy and polluted cities.  Disoriented and confused, perhaps they’d lashed out in anger.  I felt an affinity for them for this reason.  I preferred natural surroundings myself.  Large cities often made me feel small and out-of-place.  In a word: unwelcome.  I tried to imagine how I would feel if I were forced to leave the mountains and was put to work in an unfamiliar concrete jungle.  Would I go berserk?

I have to confess to a certain feeling of justice served whenever I would hear stories of animals striking back at humans.  When bison in Yellowstone turned on their tormentors (usually someone with a camera and no zoom lens), the resulting carnage would seem little more than an exclamation point on the dangers of ignoring common sense: an almost comically predictable outcome.  In many parts of southeast Asia elephants are still revered, and when they do run amok, tossing people with their trunks and crushing them underfoot, they are often given a chance at “rehabilitation”.

After only a cursory search on the Internet it quickly became obvious that elephants running amok are not a rarity.  In the past three years close to a thousand people have been trampled or gored to death by rampaging elephants in the Indian state of Kerala alone.  From Indonesia to Sri Lanka, India to Vietnam, elephants were going berserk and killing people.  Sometimes, as in Bangkeh, Indonesia, an entire herd of wild elephants would storm a village, destroying houses and chasing off residents.  Even in the United States, where elephants only exist in zoos and circuses, thirteen people have been killed and 135 injured by elephants since 1990.

Most articles blamed deforestation and habitat loss (in the case of wild elephants) or mistreatment (in the case of tame elephants).  Sometimes elephants were given drugs, like amphetamines, to make them work harder or longer hours.  This can make them behave erratically as well.  One of the more bizarre episodes of drugging happened in the early 1960’s in the United States when Tusko, an elephant at the Lincoln Park Zoo, was chosen as a 7,000-pound guinea pig to determine if LSD could be used to make an elephant run amok.  Ethics aside, it was a strange experiment.  Unsure of the amount they should use, the scientists decided to err on the side of excess, and Tusko was administered nearly 300 milligrams of LSD, shot into his rump by a rifle-powered dart.  Enough acid to send several thousand people to the land of Oz.  Tusko, however, did not run amok.  Instead, he fell over, went into convulsions, and died.  The scientists in charge of the experiment came to the following edifying conclusion: “It appears that the elephant is highly sensitive to the effects of LSD.”

Other, more sinister episodes of elephant-drugging have recently emerged.  In the spring of 2009 five rare Sumatran elephants were found dead near a plantation for oil palms.  It was determined that they had been poisoned with cyanide-laced pineapples.  It was suspected that the deed had been carried out by villagers running the plantation who feared that the elephants would object to their brand of entrepreneurship (and deforestation) by trampling their crops and threatening their livelihood.  Palm oil is a prized commodity.  It is used in cosmetics and as a clean-burning fuel.  It is a profitable, billion-dollar industry, whereas elephants are not.

There is another reason why elephants go berserk, and it has nothing to do with man.  Elephants experience a periodic form of madness which is called “musth” (pronounced must), during which the animals become highly aggressive, attacking humans and other elephants (and have even been known to attack and kill rhinos).  Once thought to be a kind of rut, more recent evidence suggests that it has more to do with dominance, and there are few animals that can challenge the elephant to that title.  So the answer to my question as to whether the animals at the Ayutthaya Elephant Palace were likely to kill again seemed to be an unqualified “yes”.

These were my thoughts prior to my trip to Ayutthaya.

Ayutthaya lies about 50 miles north of Bangkok.  For over 400 years it served as the capital of Siam until its destruction in 1767 by the Burmese, whose armies rode in on the backs of fierce war elephants. I rode in on a bus.

The central part of Ayutthaya is surrounded by water.  Three rivers – the Chao Phraya, Pa Sak, and Lopburi – encircle what is known locally as “the island”.  Therein lie the renovated ruins of the ancient capital referenced in the guidebook, around which the rehabilitated elephants carry their paying tourists.  It was to be my first stop.

I’d called ahead to arrange an interview with Ewa Narkiewicz, one of the directors of the Elephant Palace and Royal Kraal.  The Kraal (a South African word meaning “corral”) serves as something of a headquarters for the organization, where people looking for a more intimate interaction with elephants can stay for several days, weeks, or even months, feeding and caring for the elephants as well as riding them.  The Kraal was located in the northeast corner the island, but I’d arrived a day early in order to visit the Elephant Palace, which was nearer the center of the island where tourists could ride the elephants around the old city.  Before I spoke to anyone, I wanted the opportunity to form my own impressions.

It was a 40 baht tuk-tuk ride (about $1.20) to the Elephant Palace from my hotel.  I sat in the back of the vehicle, which resembled a toy pickup truck with a canopy and barely accommodated my six-foot frame.  Sharing the ride with me were a couple of English backpackers.  “These things aren’t made for Westerners,” one of them remarked as the driver aimed for another pothole and sent us lurching into each other.

Before seeing the elephants, I smelled them.  The odor was reminiscent of a horse stable.  I looked around as the driver slowed and pulled into a shaded enclave.  There, standing shoulder to shoulder under a tall awning, were several of the beasts.  Red and gold blankets covered their backs and yellow tassels swung at their ears.  A simple howdah completed the ensemble.  Upon these benches sat the mahouts – the elephant drivers – looking bored.  I only had a moment to take in this scene before my tuk-tuk driver grabbed at my elbow and indicated the ticket booth.

“Ticket. Ride elephant,” he said.

“Later,” I said.

“You buy ticket.  Ride elephant,” he insisted.

“Later,” I said.

A woman approached me.

“You want elephant ride?” she asked.


“Twenty minutes, four hundred baht.”

“OK, but later.”

“Stop at temple.  Many temple.”

I nodded, then walked away toward the elephants who were shoveling bundles of grass into their mouths with a practiced sweep of their trunks.  There were some benches nearby and I took a seat, watching the animals as their mahouts looked down at the small crowd of tourists who were snapping pictures.  I noticed a booth to one side with a signboard: TAKE PICTURE WITH BABY ELEPHANT – 40 BAHT.  On cue a baby elephant was trotted out in front of the viewing area and was given a hula hoop to spin with its trunk.  The mahout then placed his takaw (a hooked club) on the animal’s head and pressed downward, making the calf perform a handstand.  The tourists laughed and applauded.  After a few more maneuvers it was made to pose for 40-baht photographs with people who smiled and gave a thumbs-up to the camera.  Then another elephant was brought out, an adult this time, and it was similarly instructed to sit on its haunches and wag its head from side to side in a friendly manner for photos.  Meanwhile, the baby elephant was lead off the stage, dropping melon-sized turds as it ran, much to the delight of the audience.  I remembered the tagline of the Elephant Palace and Royal Kraal: Creating a sustainable future for Thailand’s noble elephants.

The following day I got up early and left the hostel for my interview with Ewa.  The island was not very large, so I decided to walk to the Kraal.  It was hot, but not like the previous month when you could work up a sweat just by stepping outside.  So I enjoyed the novelty of being under my own locomotion, although I spent a fair amount of time deflecting the advances of tuk-tuk drivers concerned for my well-being:

“Kraal is far.  100 baht special price for you.”

“Is hot today.  Take tuk-tuk.  100 baht.”

After Bangkok, this kind of importuning was almost quaint.

It took about an hour to arrive at the Royal Kraal, a restored enclosure where elephants had been corralled in the past.  Behind this site was the headquarters of Elephantstay, the not-for-profit organization which ran both the Elephant Palace and extended stay program at the Kraal.  As I approached the center I walked past several elephants who were being washed, fed, or were simply roaming behind the high, wooden posts of the enclosure.  Ewa was waiting for me in a small thatched hut.

“Some of the new folks have already arrived,” she said, waving me toward a shaded enclave where a half-dozen people were seated.

Ewa was Australian and had come here with her partner Michelle, who’d worked as a zookeeper in Melbourne before coming to Thailand.  Ewa gave me a quick history as I helped myself to a cup of instant coffee.

“They wouldn’t let Michelle work with elephants there because she didn’t fit the type.”

“What type is that?” I asked.

“The Pamela Anderson type” she said scornfully.

When I met Michelle I saw that with her ruddy complexion, short hair and bush knife, she did seem more Crocodile Dundee than Pamela Anderson.  I also noticed that this sense of injustice seemed to permeate the entire compound, which was a menagerie.  They took in not only “killer elephants” but also cats and dogs and birds and even a monkey.  The latter had been attacked by dogs and had lost both of its legs and one arm.  It was kept in a cage and had been given a pet rabbit.  Michelle introduced it to the new arrivals:

“Don’t make eye contact with it.  Monkeys see eye contact as a challenge.  And don’t smile.  Monkeys associate showing teeth with aggressive behavior.  Oh, and don’t touch the bunny.  The monkey is very protective of its bunny.”

One of the guests, a young Australian who’d come with his girlfriend and was looking for “a deeper experience with elephants,” asked “Is it a stuffed bunny?”

Michelle shook her head.  “It’s a real bunny, and the monkey doesn’t like people touching it.”

Considering the fact that we were surrounded by abused, abandoned, and killer elephants, this concern with a caged, amputee monkey seemed a little out-of-place.

“We’re very concerned with safety,” Ewa told me as the new inductees mounted their elephants for the first time and headed for the river.

This gave me the opportunity to ask about the dangers of using “killer” elephants to give rides to tourists.

“Have you ever had a killer elephant revert to violent behavior?” I asked.

Ewa did not like this question.  She paused, sighed, then said, “Anytime you work with animals you run the risk of injury.  If you have cats you’re going to get scratched.”

I did not say that elephants and kittens are not comparable, but she apparently caught the doubtful look on my face.

“Yes,” she conceded, “we’ve had incidents.  Just recently one of the mahouts was injured by an elephant.”

She pointed him out.  He was riding behind one of the guests on an elephant that had just emerged from the river.  The mahout had a long, deep gash on his face, and as he passed he smiled and pulled up his pants leg to reveal a bandaged leg.

“He was back to work within a week,” Ewa said triumphantly.

She went on to explain that the Kraal had a very active breeding program as well, and that they were very selective of the elephants they would allow to breed.

“For centuries elephants have been bred for violence, because it made them valuable in war. What we’re doing here is breeding the violence out.”

The emphasis seemed to be on retraining the elephants for more constructive, creative work.  An example of this was the elephant painting program.  I was shown a canvas with a recognizable figure painted in silhouette.

“Is that…Michael Jackson?” I asked.

An American woman who’d been at the center for a couple of weeks explained how it was done.

“The mahouts put brushes in their trunks and train them to make certain movements.  The elephants don’t know what they’re doing, of course, but they seem to enjoy it.”

She looked at the canvas and made a face.

“I don’t really like it when they make them do things like this, though.”

In the course of the afternoon I heard a lot about the contributions that these captive elephants were capable of making in order to prove themselves economically viable in the modern world; from the recycling of elephant dung into paper to appearing in movies, TV, and documentaries.  Listening to this catalog of skills was a bit like listening to the banter of a Hollywood agent, or the pre-election promises of a politician – If elected I promise that every elephant will be able to find a job so that it can live in dignity and provide for its future…  But what kind of a future were we talking about?  A future of swinging hula-hoops and carrying tourists?  I asked Ewa if there was a longer term strategy to reintroduce these animals to the wild.

“If we put these elephants in the wild they would die,” she said simply.

I asked about the elephants that were living in the wild in Thailand’s national parks, but she waved me off.  She explained that the parks border countries like Burma, where logging is still practiced and elephants that stray into their territory are captured and put to work.  This concern was echoed by others who lamented the Thai government’s apparent indifference regarding the state of its national parks.  But Ewa went further, dismissing the idea of wild elephants altogether.  “I believe in genetic memory,” she said. “Even those elephants in the national parks remember working with people.”

Later, upon reading the Elephantstay press kit, I saw why she’d given such short shrift to the idea of wild elephants and national parks:

As there is barely enough jungle to sustain existing wild populations, we need to recognize that the future of the elephant lies with living with people [and] the most popular industry to emerge is tourism.

So that was it.  An animal that had seen its numbers decline to about 3% of its historic population and its habitat shrink to an unsustainable level would be abandoned as a wild species and rebranded for tourism.  A realistic, if not a poetic, solution.

Walking back from the Kraal under the midday sun, forced to breathe the fumes of incessant traffic, I stopped under a shade tree near the entrance to Wat Ratchaburana, one of the many restored temple complexes in Ayutthaya.  In order to purchase a little respite from the noise I bought an entrance ticket.  From there, I passed through the gate to another world.

In front of me rose the main prang of the temple, a phallic edifice in the Khmer style which spoke of mysterious Eastern civilizations that had flourished while the Western world wallowed in the Dark Ages.  Nearly empty, the temple complex was a study in contrasts. The lawns were well-manicured, thanks to the labor of the groundskeepers who moved silently among the old stones, but the prangs, stupas, and statues were in ruin.  Trees grew out of the topmost tiers of the prangs.  Broken walls and headless Buddhas attested to the destruction of the invading Burmese armies.  It was as if the true-believers had continued their toil through the centuries; tending the grounds with care, unaware that the gods no longer resided within the crumbling walls around them.

Was this the state of affairs regarding the elephant in southeast Asia as well?  Was the elephant already gone, with institutions like the Elephant Palace and Royal Kraal serving merely as groundskeepers for an absent deity?  Conquered by the modern world, it seemed that Thailand’s elephants were destined for a diminished role as ghosts haunting the ancient galleries of their more substantial past.

Someone once told me that after working in Yellowstone I would never be able to enjoy a zoo again, and that has proven true.  There is a line in Rudyard Kipling’s story “Toomai of the Elephants” where the elephant speaks his mind: I will remember what I was, I am sick of rope and chain … I will not sell my back to man for a bundle of sugar-cane.  That was how it seemed to me.  Having been raised on a diet of natural landscapes and national parks, I’d learned to respect the wild nature of animals.  We share this world with them, but we are not of them.  To paraphrase Mr. Kipling: Beast is beast and man is man, and never the twain shall meet.

1 Comment

Posted by on February 14, 2011 in THAILAND 2009-10


One response to “The Elephants of Ayutthaya

  1. Kristi Koenig Kastler

    February 15, 2011 at 06:12

    Very touching and thought provoking. Elephants are such intelligent and emotional beings, not so different from humans. Unfortunately, humanity often treats its own members in the same way, so what hope is there for wildlife? Well written, Jim. Thanks for sharing.


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