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Swimming with pachyderms in Thailand

Elephants could be used, perhaps, to attract more tourists to the river, and because they eat enormous amounts of vegetation, they might be utilized to tackle the knotweed problem.
Contributed photos by Don Downs

By Fritz Mayer
April 24, 2013

LAMPANG, THAILAND — Fremont resident Don Downs and his wife Edie travelled to Thailand in February and spent a couple of days living with elephants.

It was a program of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC) which is supported by Princes Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand. The center’s website says, “Thailand is currently facing two pressing needs in elephant management. First is to preserve valuable but rapidly disappearing traditional knowledge. The second need is to simultaneously promote the introduction of modern techniques and management. TECC services available to elephant owners (the Hospital Work we do, the Mobile Clinic, and the Elephant Rescue Unit) have all created extraordinary good will for our staff amongst the elephant-keeping community.”

Don and Edie got a taste of what it might be like to be members of the elephant-keeping community over two days at the center. The couple learned the commands that the handlers (mahouts) use to control the big animals and rode the elephants on land and in the water. Don said his particular pachyderm decided to roll over in the water, and Don was temporarily obliged to dismount.

He said the operation at the center was impressive, but there is also an air of sadness about it. He said, “It’s kind of a sad story in a way because every one of the poor elephants is registered and all of them are chained up.” In addition, Thailand’s remaining wild elephants are under severe pressure.

Don added that while elephants used to serve as workhorses in various tasks, that is no longer really the case. Don said, “They live to be 60, and there’s really nothing for them to do but entertain the tourists. It’s exhilarating and yet sad at the same time.”

Don thought his doctored photos would make a good April fool’s story, but we thought the originals also deserved to be seen.