Just as New Mexico has coyotes as well as poodles, and Australia has both dingos and sheepdogs, so Southeast Asia has both wild and domesticated elephants. They are the same species but different, as different as poodles and pit bulls—or to quote one of our favorite T-shirt slogans from Thailand: “Same Same But Different.”
In Thailand’s remote Phu Kradung National Park, we found many of the trails closed with signs warning, “Wild Elephants.” When we headed toward the elephants on an unmarked trail, a woman jumped up from her stall and gestured frantically for us to stop. “No no,” she yelled. “Danger.”
A video of a different Thai national park, Khai Yai, shows a wild elephant, annoyed by a honking car horn, sitting on a car and squashing it into pile of junk. Another video from the same park shows a group of wild elephants chasing tourists who got carried away with their picture taking. (Once in Africa our pickup truck drove between a mother and a baby elephant and we had to flea at top speed as the mother chased us down a dirt road.)
In contrast to wild elephants, domesticated elephants have been part of people’s lives in Southeast Asia for millennia. Ancient paintings and engravings show kings riding into battle on elephants. A 19th-century picture shows an elephant carrying a cannon into battle. At the ancient city of Ayutthiya, we saw about a dozen elephants giving families rides around the archeological sites.
The official name of Laos for centuries was “The Kingdom of a Million Elephants and the White Umbrella” (both are symbols of power). The walls around many ancient cities, palaces and pagodas throughout Southeast Asia, including the most famous of them all, Angor Wat in Cambodia, include separate gates for elephants to enter.
Today in Thailand, every “white elephant” that is discovered becomes by law the personal property of the king. These so-called white elephants are actually tan-colored semi-albinos, and one of these rarities was said to have been discovered while we were in the country.
Elephants were invaluable in logging the region’s now decimated hardwood forests. In Thailand, the logging has been illegal since 1995 but continues illegally in some places; it is still unrestricted in Cambodia and Laos. An American expat we met in Banlung, a remote city in northeastern Cambodia, told me that when he first arrived 30 years ago, the entire eastern half of the country was unbroken primary forest; now none remains there.
Nowadays, domesticated elephants, in the absence of logging, have been given other kinds of work to earn their very expensive upkeep. They are a prime tourist attraction, offering children and families rides and performing tricks in circus-like encampments. Although their numbers have been cut at least in half, some 50,000 wild and domesticated elephants remain in the region.
Elephants, however, are not poodles, and all of them, wild or domesticated, need to be treated with respect, a lesson I learned when an 18-month-old baby elephant gently nudged me over an embankment so it could walk down a trail I was blocking. I went flying through the air and landed in a field so hard I blacked out for a second. My head hit the ground, my glasses went flying in one direction and my watch in another.
None the worse for my fall, however, I was standing waist deep in a river a few minutes later helping to bathe the baby and its mother. The baby didn’t seem to hold a grudge, and neither did I.
As we and the elephants were returning from the river, we all suddenly stopped. The baby elephant and its mother were standing close together, their trunks intertwined around each other.
They were using their trunks both to hug and to caress each other. It was as palpable, as powerful, as moving an example of affection as I have ever seen in any species, including my own.
The pair of elephants were among a half dozen cared for by a prosperous but traditional Karen village in northern Thailand. The Karen are a minority from Burma, many of whom have been battling the Burmese government for autonomy. This group, 50 members of a single extended family, walked across the mountains to Thailand a half century ago. The Thai government gave them a plot of mountain land on which to raise crops, build houses and raise elephants.
Elephants have been part of the Karen way of life for centuries. Sometimes called the Elephant People, they care for elephants with a loving quality that is unusual if not unique. Unlike most other elephants in Southeast Asia, theirs do not perform circus tricks, give rides to tourists, log the forests or do other work. They are pets, and as such, cherished, caressed and catered to.
I only actually saw elephants at work once, on the bank of the Mekong River in Laos, where two of them were helping farmers clear land to plant rice. We slipped quietly by in our small boat during a two-day trip down the river, with neither elephants nor farmers paying us the least attention.
Attention, however, is increasingly being paid to elephants in, of all places, the United States. Local communities and a few states are restricting how elephants can be used in circuses or prohibiting elephant performances outright. In reaction, circus companies are eliminating elephants. The latest is the biggest of all, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, which just announced that as of April it will be canceling performances by its last 10 elephants, who will join 45 other elephants in Florida at the nation’s largest elephant conservation site.
This decision comes just as as an animal rights organization, Animal Defenders International, released a video that it says shows that Rosie, the name given the elephant who starred in Robert Pattinson’s 2011 film “Water for Elephants,” had been severely abused two decades earlier. The video shows an elephant being shocked with stun guns and being beaten on her body and legs with bull hooks while in the keeping of a company called Have Trunk Will Travel.
The irony here is extreme, as the film’s story focuses on a young couple who jeopardize their own safety to protect Rosie from abuse by a cynical circus owner.
Mean-spirited entrepreneurs are hardly the only ones to abuse and abase elephants. Donald Trump’s Republican presidential campaign anchored an elephant outside one of his rallies, at the Robarts Arena in Sarasota, Fla., and chalked on the patient’s beast’s flank in huge letters, “TRUMP Make America Great Again.”