Let me introduce you to Dori, a young man in his early 20s. When the time came for him to leave his family home in northern Thailand, Dori’s parents gave him Sudalas, a young elephant cow that had already delivered two calves. Sudalas was to be his livelihood. When Dori left home, he packed up Sudalas, trucked her to the island of Ko Samui and started to work as a mahout (elephant keeper). The way Dori makes a living for himself and his elephant is by providing rides for tourists.
Traditionally, elephant keepers come from a long line of mahouts. As the life span of a person is roughly similar to that of an elephant, it is common for a young man to be given a young elephant as a means to earn a livelihood. Often, it is a relationship that lasts a life time. Being the owner/caretaker of an elephant is neither glorious nor easy; it is hard work. Every morning Dori takes Sudalas to the river where she is washed and scrubbed. Sudalas will also drink from the river. Urine and dirt from her night’s sleep have to be washed off. Then Dori has to collect branches and leaves for his elephant. Sudalas eats as much as 150 kg (330 lbs) of plant matter per day. The daily work routine involves taking tourists in pairs on a trek through the woods. The tourists sit in a carriage that is mounted on the back of the elephant. Dori drives his elephant forward by gently brushing his feet against her left and right ears. Specific instructions are given to his elephant through the use of verbal commands and an “ankus” (a short pole with a metal hook). Dori pokes Sudalas with the hook in the head, mouth and ear where the animal is most sensitive to touch.
From the moment Dori owned his own elephant, he lost his freedom. The two are joined at the hip and may spend the rest of their lives together. At age 40 both will reach their peak, they will know each other’s character well and their bond will be very close.
The spread of tourism in many south Asian countries has resulted in, what I call a “perversion” of the almost sacred bond between the mahout and his elephant. Rather than limiting their use to logging and carrying tourists, these majestic animals are also taught tricks that are supposed to please audiences. Asian elephants are known to be highly intelligent and self aware. Studies have proven their cognitive abilities to be similar to those of great apes. To me, seeing 4-ton elephants stand on two feet while playing hula-hoops with their trunks is not amusing.
For every 10 deaths among domesticated elephants in Asia, only 2 calves are born. Being the sole source of income for many mahouts like Dori, the animals are worked extremely hard. Pregnancies mean an interruption in income, something mahouts can ill-afford.
I find the concept of the mahout – elephant relationship both intriguing and heart-warming. A closer look, however, unveils a difficult and troubling life style for both, the man and his elephant. Far from the romanticised version we like to envision, giving your son an elephant as a means to earn an income is a poor substitute for a college degree!