There are a number of reasons why this giant animal was chosen as Thailand’s national symbol, a key reason being that the Thai people celebrated the elephant’s incredible strength, durability, and longevity.
The white elephant (actually more pink in color) is a symbol of royalty in Thailand as well. According to Buddhist tradition, on the eve of Buddha’s birth, his mother had a dream and was given a lotus flower by a white elephant. The animal was so revered and respected, it was even on the Siamese flag until the early 1900s. Because white elephants were incredibly rare, they were only used for royal duties.
This is how the Western white elephant gift exchange came to be: Thai kings would offer white elephants as gifts to their rivals, but because the animals were considered sacred, the elephants could not be put to work, made useful in any way, or be given away. Instead, the recipient of this gift just had to take care of it, which is an expensive endeavor. The white elephant was seen as a burden but one that the gift-receiver could get rid of—hence the holiday exchange game.
The elephant’s role in Thailand began as early as the late 1500s. The Thais took advantage of elephants’ sheer size and strength to fight against the Burmese, Malays, and the Khmer to protect the Kingdom.
In addition to playing a part in Thailand’s battles, elephants were put to work across the country for generations. From hauling teak wood to logging the dense jungles in the north, elephants were used in lieu of machinery. Elephants were trained until about the age of 10 before actually being put to work, and they did not retire until about the age of 60.
Sadly, the number of elephants in Thailand has declined from about 100,000 to less than 5,000 since the early 20th century. Since elephants could no longer be used for logging (which was banned in 1989), they were thrust into the tourism world and forced to take tourists trekking through the jungle or perform in front of crowds.
Because the elephant is the national symbol of Thailand, they are the main attraction at many festivals and events. Thousands of locals flock to the Surin Elephant Round-up (certainly the most popular of them all) on the third weekend of November to watch hundreds of elephants play games and be part of ceremonies. Polo players come from all over the world to ride on these animals at the King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament, held in Bangkok.
Elephants are found in pockets of jungle across Thailand. Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary, found in the provinces of Uthai Thani, Tak, and Kanchanaburi, has recently seen an increase of elephants in its western forest. The eastern forest of Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai has also seen an increase in its elephant population. Most elephants take refuge in national parks across Thailand as they slowly lose their natural habitat to things like poaching and logging.
Over half of Thailand’s over 3,000 captive elephants are used for tourism or are put to work, and living conditions are not always suitable for them. The high cost of maintaining an elephant has many owners neglecting to take care of the animal’s basic needs, and overcrowding can be a problem as well.
Today, many tourists flock to the Kingdom in hopes of seeing and riding these animals; unknown to them, they are fueling a cruel practice. In order to be ridden, elephants, including those that logged the jungles, must first go through a process known as Phajaan (“the crush”), in which they are tortured until broken into submission.
That said, there are a number of ethical sanctuaries. Visitors of places like Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai can rest assured that animals are not exploited and are well-taken care of, and visitors are allowed to interact with them in a positive way. Other ethical elephant sanctuaries include Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary and Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand.