Monday, January 20, 2014

Thailand Journal IX: They Shoot Elephants, Don’t They?

Photograph by Hallie Cohen
The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation rescues elephants that have resorted to begging (even in the streets of a metropolis like Bangkok), from over use in trekking and from landmines. Even in a country like Thailand where goods tend to be cheap, elephants, who can eat 400 pounds of food a day, cost at least $12,000 a year to maintain. In a way the foundation is returning elephants to the sacred status they’d had before they became orphaned by modernity and it recognizes the extraordinary characteristics of the elephant. Elephants which have approximately 40,000 muscles in their trunk are as flexible as they are strong. They can pick up an egg without cracking it while pulling down a tree. Within the chain of animal being, they are approximately sixth in intelligence, coming after dolphins, bonobos and chimps to name a few of their compatriots in the animal kingdom. The foundation, which routinely tests elephants, has determined that they probably see dichromatically and experience most of the world with a lateral vision that leaves a blind spot at the center. Mahouts care for the elephants and there are certain words that are used to direct them. “Bai” means to go forward,  “ben,” turn and “how,” stop. Elephants are regal animals and there is something wonderfully anachronistic and romantic about riding one (you feel like a maharajah). To control such a beast creates the illusion of enormous power though if one of these peaceful animals turned on you, it would be all over.

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