Elephants are still the national symbol of Thailand, although they have disappeared to day from the national ensign. We know from history about the use of elephants as transport and working animals, as symbols for ceremonial parades, as unassailable mobile high seats for Tiger hunts - in short, as an impressive element of Far Eastern Culture. The Thais show great respect and love for these animals, even if their economic importance has largely been lost to day.
Elephants are in Thailand not only an animal, so as horses or cows in our countries. They played already an important role in the early history of Thailand. Sitting on their richly decorated elephants, in former times the kings and prince Thailand’s went into war with the rulers of the neighboring countries. Elephants have above all a symbolic value for Thais, and are admired also as lucky charm. If we are sitting at the beach, and somebody comes along with an elephant, my wife does not miss to creep under the belly of the elephant. Because this brings luck, particularly for pregnant women.
Very special appreciation does enjoy the so-called white elephants, which were already kept in ancient times at the Siamese royal court as symbols of royal power. The albinos, however, are not snow-white, but rather pink. Previously, when such an animal was born in the country, it was presented as a gift to the king, because white elephants were considered sacred animals, and were reserved alone for the king. The old national ensign of Siam, until it has been changed the middle of last century, showed a white elephant on a red field. The highest Thai Order of merit is named “White elephant”
There exists also in Thailand a day of elephants. On Elephant day, mainly in Isaan where in some areas elephants are still kept as domestic animals, the animals are decorated and will get presents. For example, on Elephant day in Ayutaya up to several thousand kilograms of fruits are donated by the numerous felicitators, and served to the animals on a festively decorated table, where the elephants can also enjoy themselves with watermelons, papayas and pineapples.
When last year an elephant named Motala stepped on a mine in the border area to Cambodia and lost a leg, the condition of the animal was reported every day in the newspapers, and millions of Baht were donated for the treatment of Motala, and not only from wealthy people. In Bangkok, there has even been built a 26-storey skyscraper that looks like an elephant. Both the trunk as well as the big ears contains office space, and the big glass eyes look like giant aquariums.
The natural habitat of elephants has dwindled from year to year. While in the early seventies there were still about 10 000 elephants in Thailand, this number has been dramatically reduced by increasingly diminishing their habitat. It is estimated that today there are still around 3.000 domesticated elephants in Thailand, and only a few hundred animals in the wild live habitats in the national parks. Trained elephants were formerly mainly employed to work in the timber industry. A major cause for the decline in the elephant population is a measure, which should restrict the destruction of the environment, the complete ban on logging. Since the logging was banned by the government, the elephants, which were indispensable for the removal of the trunks in the dense rainforest, have become unemployed; there are no more jobs for the animals.
But because they need to eat anyway (an elephant is not a rabbit, which is satisfied with a couple of lettuce leaves), remains no other solution for the owners, than to bring the animals to the tourist centers, and to try there to earn their means of subsistence. That is unfortunate, but it shows by no means a decline of the traditional respect of the Thai for their elephants. The owners offer an elephant ride to the tourist, wandering along at the beach with their pachyderms by day, and along the bars by night, in order to earn money. A healthy elephant costs now around 300,000 Baht. Who buys such an animal in order to earn money in tourist centers, must cover not only its purchase price, but also the maintenance costs,
Environmentalists are especially worried about the apparent increase of young elephants under three years, working in the tourist industry. They have little chance of survival if they are separated from her mother while growing up. And if they survive, they usually get bone disease, because they don’t get the necessary quantities of milk supply. Most of these baby elephants are orphans, whose mothers have been killed by poachers.
But there are also people in Thailand who are not in complete agreement with the love of elephants. For example the pineapple farmers on the outskirts of the national parks, where elephants regularly come to ruin their pineapple crops. The farmers say, that the intrusion of elephants in their plantations has nothing to do with a shortage of food, because in the jungle is plentiful food for the pachyderms. They come to the fields, because they like pineapples and if they ever experienced how good the fruit tastes, they can no longer resist. Disincentive measures like clackers and barbed wires have proved to be useless. The elephants are extremely intelligent animals that not a second time will be taken in on a bluff like clackers. In some cases regrettably, the lovers of sweet fruits have therefore been poisoned by the field owners.
They once belonged to the image of the Thai landscape, the buffaloes plowing the rice fields. Today, the water buffaloes are replaced almost everywhere by small diesel-driven tractors, controlled by the rice farmers tramping behind the plow. The motor-plows are cheaper to maintain than the buffaloes, if they are not used for plowing they can simply be turned off, while the Buffaloes need to eat all year round. Nevertheless, every family in the Isaan-villages still owns a smaller or larger herd of these massive companions with big horns. Every morning, a family member - usually the grandfather – will drive the flock through the village to the fields, where then during the whole day he is watching over them, so that the animals are gormandizing only the grass around the edges of the fields, and not the young rice.
The animals are now only raised for slaughter. Their meat with low cholesterol content is eaten as staple food. The normal life of a buffalo is 20 to 30 years, but now barely any of them reach reaching this age, because they are already at a young age processed to steaks and meat. Each year from 200,000 to 300,000 water buffalo are sent to the slaughter houses. It is estimated that per head of Thai population about 10 kg buffalo meat is consumed per year. Although there is a law dating from 1956 that makes it illegal to slaughter female Buffaloes, to day ca. 30% of animals delivered to the slaughterhouses are females. As an adult specimen can easily bring up to 10,000 Baht when sold, they present a considerable wealth for the family, even the single wealth, if not a daughter who is working in Pattaya, has succeeded in catching a Farang.
Especially upcountry, most families are with many children. What will be finding even more in the villages as children are dogs. If the people in the villages in Isaan will receive the Farang mostly friendly, it is certainly not the case with the dogs. If the Farang goes through a village, he is usually accompanied by a whole pack of yapping street mutts. The dogs are lying with predilection on the middle of the road, and dare not to make space for a vehicle. They believe devoutly, that the road belongs to them. The majority of motorcycle accidents are caused by collision with a dog lying on the street, or suddenly appearing in front of the motorcyclist, so he has no time to brake.
Even if it may be possible to ignore the yapping during the day, at night the dogs in my village can be a real pain. Each night a mutt begins miserably to howl, and gradually all neighborhood dogs will join in to the howling, which regularly wakes me up from sleep. When I asked my wife, why the dogs are making this show in the middle of the night, I got the answer: "The dogs see a spirit". If that is true, then there must be some ghosts haunting the area every night, because the noise is repeated several times during the night.
From time to time a dog-catcher is driving through the village, collecting every mutt, which is lying around on the street and can not run away fast enough. But the remaining males will then do their utmost, to ensure that the stock will soon be brought back to the old level.
The in former times the rivers of Thailand populating crocodiles are now completely eradicated. Who wants to see alligators in Thailand, has to visit a crocodile farm, from which, however, when overflowing sometimes in the raining season, a few animals will evade, what then will initiate a big hunt for the escapees, depict with all the details in the newspapers and television.
But what can be seen galore anywhere in Thailand are their relatives, only a few centimeters long, but astonishingly similar mini crocodiles, the geckos. The Thais call these animals after their exclamation "jin JOK". One can find them everywhere on walls and ceilings. They are able, because they have suckers to their feet, to move on all substrates, even with their head hanging down from the ceiling. With great speed they will escape, before any stranger can approach them. They are living exclusively on insects, especially on mosquitoes.
But they even don’t despise a butterfly, if it is careless enough to fall in sleep on a wall surface. Because of their role as killer of insects, Thais consider them as useful pets, and regard it as a sin and bringing misfortune to kill them. Even the Farang should be aware, that these animals belong to the country such as coconut palms and banana trees, and should not be frightened when they scurry over his bedside. To computer owners, however, they can be an annoyance if they arrive to get into the computer or the printer, and choose it as a protected place to store their eggs. Also they cause a lot of dirt, and at least once a week, I have to empty my desk drawers of the dirt they have let back on their visits.
Another 20-30 centimeters long lizard, often to be found in the vicinity or in the roof of inhabited houses, are called, also according to their exclamation „Tokeys.“ They are also living from the pests roving around nearly every inhabited house, such as mice, cockroaches and other vermin, and it brings also misfortune to kill a Tokey. They are hunting only on at night, and one can then often hear their 6 to 8 times repeated loud cry "to key, to key ", by which the male calls a female (or perhaps vice versa). They are harmless and do not attack people. They also like to crouch behind cupboards, and who tries to remove them by hand, risks to be bitten, and where a Tokey once bites, he can not let go.