by Ushmi, Co-Director, IHF Chiang Rai
It was Friday 13th March- a day many would remain cautious and park adventures of any kind aside… if one lived around superstition, of course. For us, here at the Chiang Rai Center, it was just another hot Friday. The kids had just begun their holidays and before they returned to their village for their long break we decided to have an outing together. I love elephants and the children love Chiang Rai Beach, so we compromised… to do both!
We took a long tail boat from Chiang Rai Beach to the Ruammit Elephant Camp. It was just under an hour of meandering along the River Kok. Gorgeous landscapes draped with hills, forest cover, plantations and scattered inhabitants were but a taste of our view from the boat. The river water splashed onto us, as if to be part of the boat ride package, cooling us from the scorching sun. We passed children playing, jumping from rocks into the water, fishermen hard at work and many other boats filled with tourists, perhaps heading to the same attraction.
The Ruammit Elephant Camp is at the Karen Village, a home to almost 30 elephants of ages from 5 to 75 years. Elephants have served the people of Thailand for years, from logging, to transportation, and most importantly in battle.
But elephants’ lives have been threatened over the years, for reasons including increased land domination by humans and climate change, amongst other endangering factors. Elephant numbers have reduced at an alarming rate, from over 100,000 to almost 6,000 wild and domesticated elephants within 10 decades. Protecting elephants soon became a common purpose nationwide.
The Karen Village was an area where elephants served a significant domestic purpose. Logging was as a result of agricultural expansion for northern Thailand- an economic activity that provided a significant and increasing source of income for the Thai. However, as negative consequences became obvious to the government, a ban of logging was passed in 1989. Elephant camps developed as elephants for tourism became an alternative income provider.
Once we arrived to the camp, the elephants were not ‘parked’ as I remembered from my last visit. The elephant carers were also relaxed, and piles of bananas and bamboo (elephant food) were left in abundance for the elephants to eat at their leisure. Everything seemed different… but isn’t that the feeling every day in Thailand? We were petting and feeding the elephants. The girls were shy, careful and perhaps scared. Nupon and the rest of us were feeding them, stroking and ‘feeling the love’.
We were intrigued about the age of the elephant and that’s when we found out. The carer said the elephant was 75 years old. A massive grinned filled his face as he said, ‘it’s his birthday today- it’s the birthday for all the elephants in Thailand!’ I didn’t quite understand and then looked around- there was no elephant riding, no chains, it was what he said- Thai National Elephant Day! We spent an hour spraying water on them, feeding them and just enjoying their company. And then they were let free into the forest. They were free for the day… but they were free.
This day is marked to show the significance of elephants in Thailand, especially through the strong connection between the elephants and the Thai. But most importantly it has become the day to raise awareness about protecting and conserving the elephant population and their habitats.
Friday 13th may be bad luck for some but for us at IHF Chiang Rai, it couldn’t have been any luckier!