Tag - national elephant institute

Guiding Jumbo

“You’ll have to jump, she won’t listen to me,” came the inspired words of the mahout. I was somewhat dubious of clearing the space between the rickety platform and the leathery back. The giant eye looked me up and down, and then gave me a mischievous wink. I figured it was only a matter of time before the platform would collapse, so I took my chances. This was my first experience with elephant rides, over a decade ago. Today, visitors to Thailand are no longer required to content themselves as pachyderm passengers with no control.

Beyond those flirty eyelashes are intelligent creatures with their own thoughts, memories and even a sense of humour. These old souls form a unique bond with the mahouts that guide them – and this world is now accessible to visitors of the National Elephant Institute (formerly known as the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre), a division of the Forestry Industry Organization, in Lampang. Working with these clever creatures is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most tourists.

Homestays and mahout training courses help people to get closer to elephants and learn more about the mahouts’ way of life. The homestay programme has been going for approximately five years and has become especially popular with foreign visitors. “There are about 100 participants each month coming from the UK, Australia, America and other far away destinations,” says Wilawan Intawong, Homestay Coordinator. Visitors can choose to stay from just one day, up to three days and two nights.

The institute tries to provide each customer with their own elephant for the duration of the programme, however, sometimes guests must share if there is a large group. “There are only 10 elephants in the homestay programme at this time,” says Intawong. “We only use the best trained elephants to ensure the safety of our customers.” The 50 or so elephants at the institute are raised ‘semi-wild’: they work at the centre during the day and are returned to sleep and feed in the jungle at night.

Homestay guests sleep in one of three rustic homestay bungalows, each with three bedrooms – one for the mahout and two for guests to share. The open-air common area and kitchen come together to form an ideal space where the group can cook with the mahout and everyone can get to know each other in the evenings. “We have many guests who say the accommodation is too comfortable,” chuckles Intawong. “They are looking for a rougher experience – but they all have a good time anyway.” Other activities include: watching the mahouts as they make woodcarvings of elephants, visiting the Elephant Hospital, learning how to make elephant dung paper, and participating in the elephant show. “Many homestay participants become repeat customers in following years,” says Intawong, testifying to the quality of the programme.

A slightly different, but equally exciting programme is provided by the Mahout Training School, which was established to train real mahouts – not just tourists. Today, the centre receives significant interest in mahout training from visitors, who can take part in programmes lasting from one day to one month. Mahout trainees sleep at the school and in the jungle with their elephants. The school allows those interested in experiencing the life of mahouts and elephants firsthand to do so in a natural but relatively safe environment. Guests not only learn how to ride an elephant but also how to care for it. One of the most important aspects of the course is learning elephant behaviours and commands used by the mahouts. Mahout trainees learn actual commands in Thai so they can communicate with their charges. Intawong says “It takes about three days to learn all the commands, but putting them into practice might take longer.”

“There are typically two mahouts to each elephant,” says Intawong. The word for ‘mahout’ in Thai is kwaan, and there is a kwaan kaaw (neck mahout) and kwaan theen (foot mahout). She explains, “This dates back from the logging days, when there was one mahout on the elephant’s neck to guide it and another by its feet to coordinate the movement of the timber.”

There are no women mahouts at TECC, and in fact, Intawong has never seen a female mahout at all. She says, “Being a mahout is like being married to the elephant, and this makes it difficult, if not impossible, to have a [human] family.” Mahouts form a deep bond with their elephants, spending the majority of their lives with them. When the elephants are chained in the jungle at night and one of them cries out, that elephant’s mahout can distinguish its voice from all the others and will go to its aid.

A mahout at the centre for 20 years, 55-year-old Pbun is now working with his third elephant since the age of 15, when he first started training to be a mahout at another village. He says, “I wake up at 5am every day to collect my elephant Tantawan (‘Sunflower’ in Thai) from the jungle and then bathe her.” Tantawan, along with many other elephants at the centre, has the important task of giving rides to tourists and other visitors. She works a few times a day, taking turns with the other elephants and finishing at 3.30pm to head back to the jungle. Mahouts at the centre only get four days off per month to go back to their hometowns. “Being a mahout is fun, but it takes a lot of dedication and true love of your elephant,” says Pbun.

Thai Elephant Conservation Center
KM 28-29 Lampang-Chiang Mai Highway
Hangchat District, Lampang 52190

Tel. 054-247-875

Email

By Chantana Jasper

There was that moment of panic…

thai_elephantThere was that moment of panic when the man and his baby elephant came strolling towards our table. ‘What should I do? Should I buy a Bag of food and feed the poor pachyderm? Will he go hungry or have to walk even longer today if I don’t? Or will my feeding him perpetuate the cycle?’; My mind and heart were battling it out. Months later, I discovered a place they could both agree on.

The National Elephant Institute (formerly the Thai Elephant Conservation Center) was founded in 1991 by the Forest Industry Organization and has since provided care for more than one hundred elephants as well as jobs and housing for mahouts and their families who were displaced after the ban on logging in 1989.

The Elephant Hospital at the institute currently cares for 15 elephants. I and my companions had the great fortune of receiving a tour of the hospital by a resident volunteer, Janique von Kanel. Originally from Switzerland, Janique has been living at the Elephant Hospital for over a year and is founder of The Elephant Hospital Society, a non-profit organization. Janique’s other passion is working with children who have leprosy in India. Can we call her ‘saint’ yet?

Janique introduced us to Babar, a baby elephant suffering from paralysis in his hind legs and back due to a fall. The ‘little’ guy hangs from a sling during the day and sleeps with a volunteer on a bed of stuffed burlap sacks at night. His mother comes to the hospital to feed him and he receives acupuncture treatment.

We also met Councy, a 45-year-old female elephant severely injured by a land mine while being used for illegal logging activities near the Burmese border.

True animal lovers can experience genuine mahout training, complete with stylish baggy pants. The institute offers programs ranging from 3 to 30 days and starting at 4,000 Baht.

Entry to the institute and hospital is free. Nominal fees are charged For elephant rides and show tickets. See how elephant dung paper is made and purchase some cards, paper or photo frames. I quite enjoyed ending my letters with, ‘Guess what you are holding…’

The National Elephant Institute:

Highway Chiang Mai-Lampang km 26-28, Amphor Hang Chat, Lampang 52000.

Elephant Hospital Society: elephanthospitalsociety@hotmail.com  

Events and activities, Elephant Donation Project:

www.changthai.com

Elephant dung paper:

www.elephantdungpaper.com