Examining the Thai Elephant: The National Animal of Thailand

A person walking with a female Thai elephant and her cub. The Thai elephant is the national animal of Thailand but it’s not strictly Thai.

The United States has the bald eagle. Canada has the beaver. Scotland has the unicorn. The national animal of China is the panda. Almost every country in the world has a national animal. Thailand is no different.

Thailand has its own national animal, a beast that’s given importance in the local culture and used as a national symbol.

Countries have national animals as part of their cultural identity. Those animals get emblazoned on seals and other symbols of the country. The animal itself is a symbol. So, what is the national animal of Thailand?

The answer is the Thai elephant.

The Thai word for elephant is Chang and elephants in Thailand are referred to as Chang thai.

Classification and Habitat

Despite the name, the elephants in Thailand may not be Thai. They are classified as Indian elephants, though there have been a few differences observed that make the ones in Thailand distinct from the ones found in India. They’re smaller, for one, with shorter front legs and thicker bodies.

How did elephants get to Thailand? Well, they’ve been there forever. Elephant presence in the region predates the extant country.

The elephants in Thailand thrive in tropical forests because of their diet. Their diet consists of ripe banana leaves, bamboo, tree bark, and other fruits. Their need to eat is so great that an elephant can spend around 18 hours a day eating and will consume between 100 to 200 kilograms, or around 220 to 440 pounds, of food per day.

A single elephant will need an area of about 160 square kilometers, or a little more than 62 square miles, to ensure an adequate food supply.

Nowadays, elephants can mostly be found in the northern and western parts of the country; Mae Hong Son, Chumphon, Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, and Erawan Falls National Park, which is named for a mythical white elephant.

Two Asian elephants bathing in mud. In Thailand, most elephants exist in captivity.

Population and Threats to the Thai Elephant

Despite being the national animal of Thailand, the elephant isn’t in a great position. Between being exploited for a variety of purposes and being poached for their ivory, there are roughly a thousand elephants in the wild and less than four thousand elephants in captivity. It’s been an endangered species since 1986.

That’s not to say that things cannot improve. The number of captive elephants went from 3456 in 2007 to 3783 in 2017, a somewhat significant increase in their population.

Now, what sort of exploitation has the Thai elephant been subjected to? The primary way that elephants have been exploited is logging. Elephants were used as beasts of burden in the logging industry.

But being used in that way isn’t the only way in which logging has had an adverse impact on elephants. The logging industry has also contributed to habitat destruction, leaving elephants with no place to live, which contributed greatly to their sparse numbers. Thailand was once covered in forests, but the logging industry changed all that.

But there’s also human-elephant conflict. Many farmers use electric fences in order to protect their crops and between 2012 and 2018, 25 wild elephants were killed largely because of these electric fences. Many farmers have adopted other, less lethal methods of keeping elephants away such as burning tires, sirens, firecrackers, bees, tree barriers, and vinegar-chili fences.

Male elephants have also been used in war because of their strength and intellect. They were trained to advance by being lightly pricked with spears and that training was conducted in noisy environments so as to simulate an active battlefield.

Elephants are also used as show animals. Mahouts (keepers) train their elephants to do tricks to entertain crowds. These mahouts also form incredibly close and reciprocal bonds with their elephants, which can complicate some preservation efforts.

This is because a number of NGOs advocate for elephant sanctuaries to be either free of human intervention or be purely observational.

Many sanctuaries are interactive and allow guests to feed and clean animals. Some even allow guests to ride them, though this isn’t good for the animal’s back in the long-term. But many such sanctuaries are tourist destinations. There are also tours in national parks and designated viewing areas where tourists can see elephants in the wild.

An elephant bathing in the water. Elephants in Thailand have a lot of cultural significance.

Many animals raised in places like sanctuaries become accustomed to treatment such as being bathed and fed and consequently become ill-suited for life in the wild. Not to mention that being in these sanctuaries can help protect these elephants from dangerous animals such as other, wilder elephants and poachers.

Preservation

There are several preservation efforts being spearheaded by both government and non-government organizations. The most prominent of which is the National Elephant Institute, which is government-owned and aims to expand conservation efforts and promote safe and sustainable ways in which elephants can be used in tourism.

The National Elephant Institute also partners with World Elephant Day, an international event dedicated to the protection of all elephants worldwide. It is observed on the 12th of August.

Cultural Significance

Part of the reason why elephants are so valued in Thai culture is religion. Thailand is a country with a Buddhist majority and elephants are sacred animals in Buddhism. This is because Buddha’s mother supposedly had a dream wherein a white elephant came to her and gave her a lotus flower.

Royal palaces and temples feature drawings of elephants. The flag of the country used to feature a white elephant and while the flag no longer has an elephant, many provincial seals such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and others feature elephants in a variety of ways. The flag of the Royal Thai Navy also features an elephant.

The white elephant in Thailand, because of its association with royalty, is seen as a symbol of wealth and power. The association is so strong that the term white elephant has become a slang term for a possession that is so precious that the owner cannot part with it even if its maintenance is high and its usefulness is low.

Countries often have a variety of national symbols and an animal is one of them. The animal is generally supposed to represent the country, to be a mascot of sorts. The Thai elephant is that for Thailand, an animal that they can emblazon on their symbols and attract tourists.

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