For people who make their living from elephants in Thailand in 2005, the world is a very strange place. Older mahouts can easily remember when as young men 30 years ago, keeping elephants was not that different than it had been since ancient times. In the north, people logged for teak. In Surin and the northeast, many people captured wild elephants, especially in Cambodia, but the last wild elephant was caught in Surin as late as 1963. In much of Thailand, especially in the rainy season, people still used elephants for everyday transportation. Life for elephant people was, as always, very difficult - but it was also very simple and very easy to understand.
Only half a lifetime later it is as if the world has been turned upside down. The number of domesticated elephants has fallen from about 100 000 a century ago down to about 2 500, or a loss of 97 percent. Capturing wild elephants is illegal, whether in Thailand or going into Cambodia. The Thai government banned logging in forest concessions in 1989, and in 2005 even illegal logging has gone way down. The thought of using an elephant to regularly transport goods or people - apart from tourists - is laughable. A two-year old calf, nearly worthless in the old days, is now more valuable than many big, strong bulls - apart from those rare beautiful tuskers that are so sweet-natured they are safe around people.
Presently most of the work for Thailands remaining elephants and virtually all of the work not against the law is in entertaining tourists, sometimes Thais but mostly foreigners. Since 2001 Thailand has received over ten million visitors a year. Without these people who board an airplane in Paris or London or New York and less than a day later reach Thailand, there would be little or no work in Thailand, certainly not enough to employ all of the countrys 2 500 domesticated elephants. But the same globalisation that has brought a replacement for the loss of traditional work has also brought new problems. Modern westerners, and even Thai city people, can be very critical of the way elephants are treated in Thailand. In 2003, a traditional elephant-breaking videotaped in Mae Hong Son was broadcast on television all around the world, becoming an international scandal when an animal rights group demanded that tourists boycott Thailand. This incident was seen by the Tourism Authority of Thailand and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a major problem in international relations.
In 2003 SARS, a viral disease of wild animals in southern China, suddenly entered the human population in several places around the world including Thailand. Nothing to do with our elephants, you would think, but the epidemic caused a fall in tourists visiting to Asia that so lowered the number of people coming to Thailand that some elephant camps were forced out of business and even the price of elephants was forced lower.
The point of all this is that times have changed and that mahouts (and elephant owners and managers) must change with the times. This need for change is true in the area of health care. Veterinary medicine has greatly improved over the last 100 years, but Thailands mahouts and elephant camp managers must constantly strive to learn more about how those scientific advances can be used to improve the well-being of elephants.