SOMPAST MEEPHAN WITH FRIEND
The setting is what makes the manifestation of Sompast's dream special. Tourists travel down roads where kings once walked, past 700 year-old temples with an unbeatable vantage point. And by night, the elephants sleep in the Royal Elephant Kraal, where the king's elephants were kept during Ayutthaya's 450-year reign as the capital of Thailand. Thus these animals return home to the same ground which their royal ancestors, vital to national defense, labor, and transportation throughout 4,000 years of Thai history, tread on soft yet sure footsteps each night. No longer just a spot on a tourist map, this richly historic place is happily alive once again.
The Ayutthaya Elephant Camp offers one model for addressing the problems facing elephants in Thailand and throughout the world. Without a great deal of land or ongoing government and corporate support (the Camp has neither), domesticated elephants must generate the income needed to sustain life. Unlike endangered animals protected within the confines of a zoo or nature park (which probably couldn't house the 47 elephants who live at the Kraal anyway), these hard workers travel several kilometers per day over a variety of terrain, interact with many others of their species, and receive care from a single individual. The exercise does wonders for their feet; along with generous quantities of healthy food and clean water, twice-daily baths, and monitoring by an on-staff vet it adds immensely to their overall physical and psychological well-being. At night, they sleep in a common area where they can lie down, communicate, and just "be elephants".
What happens to elephants in a world that's rapidly becoming too small for them, but still desperately wants them to be a part of it, depends upon our ability to think outside the box. In this case, the box may well take the shape of a zoo cage or circus trailer. A better alternative requires compromises by both people and elephants, and an open mind from those individuals in whom captive elephants arouse questions.
A FINAL THOUGHT: Elephants are the J. Edgar Hoovers of the animal world. They're arrestingly big, scaldingly intelligent, incomprehensibly powerful, blindingly good at what they do, and some have even been known to dance around in a dress.
Brian Damage is an American volunteer working at the Ayutthaya Elephant Camp in Thailand. His "From the Elephant's Back" column will be updated regularly.
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