Elephants & Mahouts in Phuket
Not many years ago, there was considerable debate about elephants in Phuket. Elephants are not native to Phuket – they come from the cooler northern part of the country – but were brought here to work in the tourist industry.
As Thailand’s logging industry declined, out-of-work elephants and their mahouts headed for Phuket. It was not unusual to see them on hot roads on their way to the beaches in the hope of making some money from tourists wanting to have their photo taken with these magnificent beasts. The animals suffered from the direct sun, the hot roads, the lack of shelter, the hours of wandering around at night and the shortage of food. In 2001 the provincial authorities took action.
“We are now very strict with elephant camps,” explains Sunart Wongchavalit, chief of Phuket Provincial Livestock Office. “Any that break the rules are barred from doing business and are black-listed.” One rule limits the number of elephants on the island. There is a total ban on elephants being brought into the province, in an effort to ensure that the beasts are well looked after and all have enough space and food. Of the 176 elephants now on Phuket, all but two are female. This is because females are easier to deal with. Unlike the males, they do not undergo periods of “musth”, a condition of extreme sexual excitement that can make the males unpredictably and dangerously violent.
The 176 elephants live in 14 trekking camps and three hotels on the island. “A veterinarian from our office visits once a month to make sure that the elephants are in good shape. We have been happy with what we’ve seen so far,” Khun Sunart says.
The Mahout’s Tale
Phuket.com dropped by the Siam Safari camp and chatted with Sompong Eodinn, an elephant mahout and trainer. Khun Sompong, 36, is originally from Surin Province in the northeast of Thailand, which is renowned for its annual elephant festival. “In my village, people keep elephants mainly to demonstrate their social status,” he says. “If you are not well-to-do, there is no way you can keep an elephant as a pet. A full-grown elephant eats a lot - about a quarter of a ton of fodder a day.” Elephants in Surin are no longer trained to work - there are no longer any forests in the region, just endless rice fields. So elephants may be trained in tricks to entertain guests at parties or at fairs, or they may be sent to trekking camps in other parts of the country to work in the tourist industry.
Khun Sompong says that, as a child, he was fascinated that people could control these enormous animals. As he watched mahouts training elephants, he knew that this was what he wanted to do. His first job, however, was as a goldsmith, something he did for six years. “I quit because the gold trade in Thailand at that time was not so good. I was happy to pursue my original dream, to be a mahout.”
Big and Powerful
Khun Sompong has been injured many times while training to be a mahout, and since, and has been hospitalised on a number of occasions. “But it was never the elephant’s fault,” he stresses. “For example, I remember once, while I was training, an excavator suddenly appeared as if from nowhere. It frightened the elephant I was working with. He ran away in a panic and knocked me over. When I fell on the ground he ran over me. I got several broken ribs.” What does it feel like to be stepped on by an elephant? “Well,” says Khun Sompong with a grin, “you can’t really breathe.”
He was not deterred, however and now he can think of nothing he would rather do. With his long experience, he says, being a mahout is not at all dangerous. “A mahout is in charge of only one elephant so you get to know the animal well and you can pretty much tell just by looking at it what kind of mood it is in or what it is thinking,” he explains. Elephants are by nature very placid animals and not at all aggressive, especially the older ones. However, they can be sensitive. For example, they don’t like sudden noises or surprises, and they don’t like being mistreated. They don’t have a big sense of humour, either. Some tourists tease elephants by holding out a banana, say, and then snatching it back. The elephant may retaliate by flicking them with its trunk. In the north of Thailand not so long ago, a young tourist crept up behind an elephant and yanked its tail. The outraged elephant whirled and trampled him, severely spoiling his holiday.
Thai elephants do not conceive easily and even when they do there is a high likelihood of miscarriage. As a result, elephants are expensive - between 400,000 and 600,000 baht apiece. “I have been working in this camp for 14 years. So far, just three babies have been born from 16 adult elephants,” says Khun Sompong. A few years ago, they lost one female. “I could feel that she was very depressed for her last two years.
Even the vet couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her. “In the end we sent her to the elephant hospital up north. They operated and found a dead foetus in her womb. For some reason the baby had not rotted, but it had been dead inside her for who knows how long,” says Khun Sompong.
Training the Youngsters
These days, Khun Sompong’s main job is to train young elephants to do tricks to entertain visitors. He is teaching three animals, aged three, six and nine, to kick a ball about, to do paintings, to pick up objects, to say hello and goodbye and - which is hardest - to dance. “Young elephants are no different from children. They tend not to be very interested in things like eating or training; they prefer to play,” says Khun Sompong.
It takes about a year for a young elephant to memorise all the orders, after which it is a case of practice, practice, practice before it is handed over to its lifetime mahout. If a young elephant is not familiar with the new mahout, it won’t listen to orders; the two need to get used to each other. It’s all a mater of time. Khun Sompong smiles. “One thing about being a mahout is that we don’t take much holiday. We live and work with our elephants. When we are away, we worry about our animals, even if we have left them in the care of another mahout. We know that they don’t like to be separated from their real boss.”