Riding an elephant in the tropical rain forest can be an unforgettable adventure. Sharon Lloyd Spence takes us on a journey with Queen Tong alongside the Maekok River in the north of Thailand.
Elephants have a unique way of greeting each other. They rumble, flap ears, entwine trunks. Scrambling out of a wooden longboat onto the beach alongside the Maekok River in the north of Thailand.
In front of me I see a majestic animal: some 6,000 pounds of wrinkled skin, a massive domed head, and legs the size of tree trunks. Chewing on bamboo, she meets my curious stare. Uncurling her trunk, she wiggled its tip in my direction. My much-awaited ride is about to start.
Suddenly, she heads straight toward me. I’m not sure if she intends to run me down, but I am too awestruck to move. At least I can capture my impending death in a snapshot. I let my camera motor drive run, snapping frame after frame, until all I see in the viewfinder is a lushly fringed amber eye. Firing off what I think could be my last frame, I lower the camera to breathe, not sure if this moment is my final. And we were off into the tangle of Thai rain forest. As it turns out, I am completely mistaken and Queen Tong proves to be a docile and friendly animal. All my fear suddenly disappears as I start to bond with this exotic and mysterious creature.
From Reverence To Subservience
Man’s infatuation with elephants is nothing new. For thousands of years, elephants were worshiped as gods. Ganesha, the Hindu elephant god, is said to remove obstacles and bring good fortune to believers. Buddhists believe that in a previous life the Buddha was born in the body of an elephant and that touching an elephant helps achieve enlightenment.
At the turn of the century Tong’s clan, the Indian elephant, numbered around 200,000. Now, due to poachers and loss of forest habitat, her kind has been reduced to roughly 1,300 wild and 3,800 domesticated elephants. Much of the rain forest is being turned into lucrative cattle ranches, luxury hotels, and housing for a growing population. Elephants that were once employed in hauling teak from forests to markets are now working in the tourist trade, giving rides — like the one I am taking.
As we cross a river, I notice how quietly and elegantly Tong moves, startling for an animal of three tons. I’m beginning to find out firsthand why elephants have been so revered. For centuries white elephants were in demand. They were brought to court by Thai kings and were worshiped but never ridden. Given a place of honor, they were shaded with silk umbrellas, fed from silver platters, dressed in magnificent outfits, and paraded at special ceremonies.
On the other hand, ivory has been highly valued since ancient times, and there are many Biblical references to it at least from the time of Solomon. Large Greek statues, such as the Athena of Phidias, were made of gold and ivory. In modern times thousands of elephants have died, their tusks ending up as Japanese netsuke, piano keys, billiard balls, jewelry, and inlay for furniture. Even elephant feet have been used as umbrella stands.
A Glimpse of Their World
Weighing approximately eleven pound s, an elephant brain is the largest in the animal kingdom, which may have inspired the saying “an elephant never forgets.” (In the wild they have complex interactions with dozens of individuals.) They are capable of intense nurturing. If, for instance, a family member becomes ill, the group forms a sort of hospice unit, hovering nearby and tending the sick or injured. A female elephant will use her trunk and front feet to rouse a sick calf. At elephant funerals, family members appear to mourn, caressing the deceased with their trunks and covering them with branches. Coming upon an elephant skeleton, a herd will spend long periods of time examining pieces of bone, passing them to one another, trunk to trunk. No one knows why they do this, but it is clear that the remains fascinate them.
Elephants communicate through vocalizations, which range from high-pitched squeaks to deep rumbles. In her “Silent Thunder: In The Presence of Elephants,” author Katy Payne explains that at dusk a loud elephant’s call might be heard by another elephant 9.8 kilometers (6.125 miles) away and the listening elephant would hear it within three hundred square kilometers. Scientists have noted up to twenty distinct calls, all below the range of human hearing. An elephant functions like a satellite dish by holding out its ears; it scans the air for warning and updates.
A Bumpy Ride
Riding an elephant is tricky. Perched on a hard wooden seat, strapped to Tong’s back, I lurch back and forth. Think of clinging to the roll bar of an open-air jeep as it backs down a ski hill. At the riverbank, she plunges her trunk deep into the muddy water and sprays both sides of her hot, dusty body, sort of an elephant version of sunscreen. She’s such a considerate tour guide, not one dr op of muck gets on my white shorts.
Soon we’ve caught up with the others in the elephant train. As Thailand’s lush green mountains rise up around us, I smile under a sapphire sky.
The Biggest Hug On Earth
Scrambling out of the hard wooden seat I’ve ridden for hours, I’m sore, sunburned, and sad that my time with Tong is over.
I can feel she had a good time showing me around as well. Curling her trunk around my waist, Tong hugs me as only an elephant can.
I now feel she would remember me. My original thought that she might charge me or crush me is long gone. Instead, I fear for a world without Queen Tong, a world without elephants. Because elephants require such huge spaces and food sources, their very domain is now imperiled as the world population verges on six billion. The debates about ivory bans and land usage rage on, while these majestic creatures await their fate.
By Sharon Lloyd Spence