If you’ve been in Thailand for more than five minutes, you’ll have noticed that they absolutely love the elephant here. On everything from temples to beer and, of course, the classic backpacker attire ‘elephant pants’, this national animal is a favorite. But why are Thai elephants the national symbol, and how did this come to be? Read on to find out…
One of the main reasons the elephant has become the national symbol of Thailand is due to the characteristics that this mammoth mammal represents. The size and strength of the elephant show great power and durability. These are qualities that are revered among locals in Thailand. In addition, the fact that elephants live to be over 60 years old in the wild also represents longevity, age, and wisdom.
Another reason that elephants are revered in Thailand is the story of the birth of the Buddha. On the eve of his birth, it is said that the Buddha‘s mother dreamed that she was given a lotus flower by a white elephant. This gave white elephants superiority and made them sacred among Thais. Later, they became a symbol of royalty.
Rare white elephants were then used for royal duties throughout the country. Additionally, the elephant appeared on the national flag until the early 1900s.
The Thai royal family often offered white elephants to their rivals or enemies as gifts. The animals were so rare and sacred that they could not be put to work or given away. This left the rivals to pay for the expensive upkeep of the animal without any reward in terms of labor.
Elephants are still used in royal events and festivals today. An example of this is the Surin Elephant Festival that takes place each November. The festival is said to celebrate the connection between elephants and Thai through parades, shows and a fruit and vegetable buffet for the elephants.
Despite being admired and appreciated in Thailand, elephants have long been used for work and battles within the country. Throughout the long wars against the Burmese, Khmer, and Malays, the Thai kingdom used the size and strength of elephants to their advantage.
Not only were they seen as good partners in war, but they were also used for logging and building. Due to their long lifespan, elephants could be put to work for 50 years before retiring. This was a great investment for companies, but, unfortunately, not so good for the species. Elephant numbers dramatically declined from 100,000 to less than 4,000 today!
After their use for logging was banned in 1989, the great grey creatures’ fate moved into tourism. No better for the elephants themselves, tourism forced the animals to carry guests through the jungle or perform in zoos and circuses.
In order to fully respect the elephant, the national symbol of Thailand, you should choose responsible sanctuaries and National Parks to see these majestic creatures. Rather than wanting to ride an elephant through the jungle, opt to interact with them without causing hurt or harm. We recommend you visit sanctuaries that offer activities like feeding and cleaning – all in their natural environment.
If possible, you should also look into charities that support elephant rehabilitation and habitat reforestation to ensure life and longevity of these beautiful animals.
There are many wonderful options for interacting with elephants; watching them roll in the mud or play in the water as they bathe. Visitors and volunteer here can rest assured that animals are well-taken care of and are treated with love and respect.