As well as playing a very important practical role in Thai history, elephants have
traditionally been of great spiritual significance. They were first mentioned centuries
ago in Hindu and Buddhist texts and since then have enjoyed a higher status in Thailand
than any other animal. However, although wild elephants have been protected by law
since 1921, deforestation and, to a lesser extent, poaching have reduced their numbers
to just a few thousand. The introduction of machines for logging, followed by a ban on
most commercial logging in 1989, has led to a sharp fall in the number of captive
elephants. Tourists may still come across these being ridden by mahouts, and at elephant
welfare camps, though some “shows” have been criticised by animal welfare groups.
Although most logging is officially banned in Thailand, elephants are still used for transporting logs in some areas. They are often looked after by one handler for all their life, and cause less damage than modern machinery.
The spiritual significance of elephants derives from Ganesh, the Hindu god of knowledge and the remover and cre ator of obstacles, who is a young boy with an elephant’s head. The significance of white elephants, the most revered of all, has its roots in Buddhism. Only the king may own them.