Treasuring Thailand’s national animal

An elephant conservation centre in Nakhon Ratchasima gives blind children a rare chance to get up, close and personal with these animals

Tall, dark, handsome and always smiling, 39-year-old Alongkot Chukaew, on first glance, looks like any other happy-go-lucky guy. That is, until he is with his elephants.

A blind student feels the elephant’s tusk and skin, along with elephant conservationist Alongkot Chukaew. PHOTOS: YINGYONG UN-ANONGRAK

His personality immediately changes once he’s with his elephants at the Thai Elephant Centre for Conservation in Nakhon Ratchasima. He gently touches them, smiles at them, murmurs in their ear and even sings to them, no matter if there’s an audience present or not.

“Elephants can be human’s best friends. I love them, just as my mother does.”

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Such an inherited interest for these large land mammals got a strong push 17 years ago when he earned his bachelor’s degree and decided to pursue a career in researching and protecting wild elephants.

And it has become his mission ever since.

Alongkot’s knowledge about wild elephants in Thailand never fails to amaze. He can recount the names and families of all 97 elephants in Khao Yai National Park off the top of his head within seconds.

“There are 24 family groups and 21 solitary males,” he said. Also, he needs no documents or notes when discussing each elephant’s different traits and personalities.

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Learning by touch; a girl feels the rough skin of an elephant during a field trip to the Thai Elephant Centre for Conservation.

His enthusiasm and dedication to elephants has won the admiration of many, some of whom became monetary donors and helped to set up the Thai Elephant Research and Conservation Fund (Terf) seven years ago.

The organisation focuses on spreading information about elephants to the public, as well as supporting conservation-oriented activities to benefit Thailand’s national animal. The organisation also collects information on the situation of Thai elephants in the wild.

According to Terf’s survey, it is estimated there are just 2,400 to 4,450 elephants left in the country, while the entire elephant population in Asia is between 30,000 and 40,000 in the wild.

In the last century alone, the geographic range of the Asian elephant, including Thailand, has also decreased by 70%, following the expanding human populations, agricultural land conversion, large-scale commercial logging, and deforestation.

Although the problems that Thai elephants now face result mainly from humans’ invasion into their natural habitats and poaching, ”people seldom recognise that ‘they’ are the problem”, said Alongkot. ”Nor will they try to do something to help these elephants.”

With such inadequate public participation gives birth to the fund’s various projects. For example, cooperating with religious institutions, schools and communities to raise awareness about elephant conservation. The fund has also co-implemented a project called ”Trees for Elephants” with ”Bring Elephant Home”, which is another non-profit elephant conservation organisation in the Kingdom, to raise saplings of different native plant species and support reforestation.

Today, the project has evolved into a plant nursery that supports further reforestation activities.

Additionally, the fund conducts research to reduce the conflicts between elephants and humans. One of its main objectives is to prevent wild elephants from damaging farmers’ crops and in turn prevent villagers from resorting to violent solutions.

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A volunteer helps a blind student learn how to set up a tent in the forest.

Apart from reducing their habitat, elephants fall victim to poachers and live captures. Subsequently, the fund has launched numerous public campaigns to sensitise the public about the perils of Thai elephants. It also founded the Thai Elephant Centre for Conservation (Tecc) in 2008 to feed sick, malnourished or wounded working elephants.

The centre, which is located in Pak Chong district, Nakhon Ratchasima province, currently has 11 elephants.

”This elephant had been overworked and suffered blood disease. But after we bought him, we took good care of him and cured his disease. Now he is healthy again,” Alongkot said, pointing to the male elephant in the centre.

Well-tamed and always quiet, this tusker _ named Plai Thong In _ serves as a living specimen for people to see up close and learn more about the pachyderm believed to have emotions and a high level of intelligence.

On the day of our visit to the centre, there were four groups, 86 in total, blind children receiving a special elephant class.

”It has a long tail and tough skin,” one boy said to his volunteer nurse after touching the elephant’s trunk and belly.

The class gives blind children a rare chance to learn about the forest and interact with elephants up close.

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Weak and malnourished elephants are nurtured back to health at the Thai Elephant Centre for Conservation.

When they arrived to the centre, the children were first introduced to the big trees in the area, touching the barks and hugging the trees to see just how big they were, while the volunteers told them details about the trees and the different wildlife in the area, as well as alert them to the various sounds in the forest.

Then came storytelling time. The children were treated to fun stories about elephants and learn about their nature, before feeding them with fruit. The highlight came when the children got to touch Plai Thong In’s trunk, tusks, ears, and skin, and then the real treat which everyone was waiting for _ an elephant ride.

”We have organised more than 300 classes like this for schools near Khao Yai National Park over the past seven years,” said Alongkot. ”I’m very happy to be able to give the same opportunity to blind children. And we want to do more of it.”

Alongkot has made it a point not to make the course classroom-like, where the teacher talks and gives handouts and little else. Instead, the course is designed to give the students an all-round education on elephants, which involves all the senses, as well as singing, dancing, entertaining and caring.

On the day, a monk was also present to teach the children about elephants through instructive Buddhist folk tales, which was definitely not a yawn, as there were musicians playing music in the background to accompany the stories.

After that, Alongkot took out his guitar from behind a tree, walked over to a microphone and began to sing and perform for the young guests. Quite shy at first, the children hesitated to respond but soon began to open up and sing along.

About 10 minutes later, it began to rain. But the chorus carried on.

However, as the rain got heavier, everyone moved to the big open-air shed. The teachers and volunteers held umbrellas for the children, who were still singing and smiling.

”He really has an innovative way to introduce Thailand’s national animal to children,” commented Robert Woodhead from the Centre for Professional Assessment (Thailand). Woodhead sponsored the four-day activity for the children.

The local community has also been supportive. Apart from donating land to build the elephant centre, the local villagers have also donated rice and other food items for participants in the blind-children-meet-elephant activity.

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Elephant conservationist Alongkot Chukaew entertains the children with music about elephants.

Despite the support, however, both the Thai Elephant Research and Conservation Fund and the Thai Elephant Centre for Conservation face constant financial difficulties due to lack of regular income.

In fact, sometimes, the nine elephant keepers and six other staff members at the elephant centre don’t get their salaries on time. Alongkot thanks his team’s spirit for maintaining their tenacity despite the odds. He is not giving up. Not yet. And neither is his team.

There is something magical about elephants, he said. Just the sight of one makes people stare in awe and be amazed by the greatness of nature. And anyone who has the chance to work closely with elephants never fail to fall in love with their intelligence and charm.

”Working with elephants makes me happy. I think the same goes for my team. It’s a tough job trying to save them … but luckily my team understands the seriousness of the situation. Saving the elephants is our mission _ and despite the difficulties, we’re all in it together.”

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