As far back as Juthamat Jongjiangam can remember, there were elephants at home.
“Since I was two or three, I was with elephants,” she says as she nurses her baby daughter in front of her family’s house in Ban Ta Klang, a tiny town in eastern Thailand. Several feet to our left, four elephants are tethered by chains in different spots around the yard.
Jongjiangam is a mahout—an elephant caretaker and trainer. So are her dad and her brother. She wants her daughter to grow up with elephants too.
The family’s home is one of many that dot the red earth of the village. In front of each home is a wide bamboo platform for sitting, sleeping, and watching television.
Walking along the main road at dusk, I notice the blue glow of screens, but everywhere I see elephants. Some homes have one, others as many as five, standing under tarps or sheet-metal roofs or trees. A few are together, mothers and babies, but most are alone. Nearly all wear ankle chains or hobbles—cuffs binding their front legs together. Dogs and chickens weave among the legs, sending up puffs of red dust.
Captive elephants—some 3,800 of them—are a cornerstone of Thailand’s tourism industry. Many work in camps performing for and interacting with tourists. Ban Ta Klang, also known locally as “the elephant village,” has about 300 elephants at any time, and the surrounding area in Surin Province claims to be the source of more than half the country’s captive elephants.
Long before tourists flooded into Thailand seeking elephant rides and entertainment, the region was the center of the elephant trade; the animals were caught in the wild and tamed for use in transporting logs. After logging was banned in 1989, many mahouts, suddenly without work, took their elephants into the cities where they would wander the traffic-choked streets begging for tips.
Now there’s a booming new elephant industry: tourism. Every November, hundreds are displayed, bought, and sold in the province’s main town, also called Surin.
The government encourages elephant training for the tourism industry, subsidizing it with monthly stipends paid to mahouts once they can demonstrate an elephant in their care has mastered three tricks and is actively performing in local shows or giving rides to tourists. Many local mahouts, including Jongjiangam’s family in Ban Ta Klang, participate in the program.
“The elephants here are inherited,” says Wanchai Sala-ngam, a mahout whose home is about a five-minute walk from Jongjiangam’s. “It's like the land that you get.”
But not everyone mahout in Ban Ta Klang has the privilege of inheritance. Many who care for elephants, including Jongjiangnam’s family, don’t own them. Instead, elephant owners, who often don’t even live in Surin, pay families a modest salary to look after and train their elephants for the entertainment industry.
In the latest episode of our podcast, "Overheard at National Geographic," reporter Natasha Daly talks about her time in Thailand reporting on the elephant tourism industry. Listen to it here.
One elephant that Jongjiangam’s family trained ended up being sold to a camp in Chiang Mai, a hub for Thailand’s elephant tourism industry. “It’s normal for the young elephants to go to camps,” she says, adding that when you keep elephants, you raise them and care for them like family. “But if one day they take them, there’s nothing you can do. One time, an elephant was just taken from my dad without saying goodbye.”
The family’s neighbor, Sri Somboon, owns his elephants. His father was an elephant catcher, and he started teaching his son to be a mahout when he was seven or eight. Now middle-aged, Somboon has raised six elephants. Five are here in Ban Ta Klang, and one is working in a camp in the coastal resort city of Pattaya.
“House elephants,” Somboon says, gesturing as he turns down his TV. Next to his outdoor platform, a two-month-old baby elephant lumbers around his mother. Somboon points across the road to a third elephant in his charge, a three-year-old male named Saeng Kaem, who is tethered to a tree. He’s wrenching his head back and forth and thrashing his trunk around. It looks as if he’s going out of his mind.
Saeng Kaem is in the middle of his training, Somboon says, and is getting good at painting. It's one of the most common tricks in elephant shows, in which an elephant drags a paintbrush across paper with its trunk, guided by a mahout who applies a bullhook—a wooden stick with a sharp metal hook at the end. Saeng Kaem has already been sold for nearly $80,000, a fairly typical price tag for a young, trained elephant in Thailand. When Saeng Kaem is ready, Somboon says, he’ll start working at a tourist camp down south.
A complex tradition
One evening, I sit on a platform with Wanchai Sala-ngam and Jakkrawan Homhual outside Homhual’s home. Both 33, they’ve been best friends since childhood. Our conversation turns to elephant training.
When a baby is about two years old, they say, mahouts tie its mother to a tree and drag the baby away. Once separated, the baby is confined. Applying a bullhook to its ear, they teach the baby to move: left, right, turn, stop. To teach an elephant to sit, Sala-ngam says, “we tie up the front legs. One mahout will use a bullhook at the back. The other will pull a rope on the front legs.” He adds: “To train the elephant, you need to use the bullhook so the elephant will know.”
Seemingly contradictory realities of the elephant-keeping tradition can be difficult to reconcile. Mahouts here say they consider elephants to be family, but they also use the bullhook and other fear-based training methods, and they often restrain their elephants with hobbles. Ban Ta Klang maintains a tranquil elephant graveyard—more than a hundred meticulously cared-for elephant grave plots topped with stones shaped like traditional Thai hats, to give elephants symbolic shade in their resting place. But not far from the graveyard is a roundabout ringed with statues of elephants ridden by elephant catchers bearing ropes and bullhooks.
The dueling undercurrents of respect and exploitation converge in this deep-rooted tradition of elephant taming. And those tensions have become more strained as mahouts in Ban Ta Klang have watched their traditional way of life become commercialized by the profitable elephant entertainment industry.
Jongjiangam left Ban Ta Klang once to work at an elephant camp in the seaside resort town of Hua Hin. “It was a stressful experience,” she says of the pressure from management to get her assigned elephant to perform well in the shows. “If the elephant couldn’t score, I got a wage deduction.”
Several Ban Ta Klang residents tell me that camps often hire people with no elephant experience to work as mahouts. “Some people just want a job,” Sala-gnam explains. Although he argues that using a bullhook when the elephants don’t obey is sometimes necessary, he’s insistent that “you can’t use it all the time.” He says he’s witnessed mahouts excessively striking elephants in many camps in Pattaya and Phuket, especially if an elephant doesn’t get tips. “People who don’t raise them don’t understand them. That’s why they hit them.” It's frustrating, Sala-gnam says. “People look at us all as if we are bad people despite the fact that we don’t act the same way [as some camp workers] and think differently.”
Jongjiangam stayed at the camp in Hua Hin for only two or three months, before returning to Ban Ta Klang. “I don’t want to leave again,” she says of her hometown. “Here, I know the elephants.”
Many residents say that the monthly stipend from the government enables them to stay in Ban Ta Klang. Even so, life has been difficult, especially for the elephants.
According to Sala-gnam, there used to be more land, and the elephants then could spend their early lives on longer chains in the forest, browsing and roaming more freely than they can today.
Now, he says, so much of the land is gone, bought up and cleared for agriculture and development, and there’s a severe shortage of food for elephants. He points across the road at houses and elephant paddocks: “That used to be all forest.”
Some local mahouts participate in the Surin Project, established in 2009 by the Save Elephant Foundation, a Thai nonprofit, in partnership with the Surin provincial government. The project is centered on a 2,000-acre plot that the government set aside with the intention of reforesting it. Participating mahouts can bring their elephants to roam there, and they work together with tourists who pay to spend time helping out with such tasks as planting crops and building improved elephant shelters. Mahouts are paid a weekly stipend for participating and committing to making their elephants’ lives better.
The Surin Project offers an alternative source of tourist income to the traditional elephant entertainment industry, but the latter’s hold on Ban Ta Klang’s mahouts may not change anytime soon. Many argue that Thailand’s 3,800 captive elephants are better off doing shows for tourists than begging on city streets.