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Sometimes, Beast of Burden Proves to Be Beastly Student at Thai Elephant School

November 29, 1987|DAVID STOREY | Reuters

PANG-LA, Thailand — Elephants may never forget but they can make awful students.

Take, for example, Phang Chantad, a hefty 30-year-old and mother of one who has worked in Thailand's teak forests for much of her life.

She has been on a refresher course at the Young Elephant Training Center in northern Thailand for more than a year and still earns a sharp crack on the head from her mahout , or handler, for stubbornness in class.

Phang Chantad is one of 43 male and female elephants on the Pang-La logging courses. They go from elementary familiarization with a mahout through intermediate dragging and pushing to advanced carrying and piling.

One of Thailand's two main elephant schools, Pang-La turns out graduates to work in the fast-dwindling forests, using their huge strength to clear valuable teak and eucalyptus logs.

"Phang Chantad knows very well what she's supposed to do," said chief trainer Nual Chaikamleu, who spent many of his 56 years squatting on an elephant's neck as a mahout.

"But she ignores commands. When she has to start work she tries to run away. She is lazy. It's because her previous mahout never imposed enough discipline when she was young," Nual said.

Other elephants are model pupils, rarely deserving a smack on the skull with a mahout's khor , a wooden baton with a butcher's hook at one end. Most of the animals quickly master the 10 key commands barked out in the local dialect of this northern district.

A one-year course is the minimum. Classes start for frisky tots of four, still with tufts of downy hair on their head.

Nual confirmed from his own experiences the legendary memory of an elephant, which is generally a gentle giant although it has no obvious capacity for genius.

"Elephants are easy to teach. Every one I have trained remembers me. They remember everyone's smell," he said.

Thai elephants have a reputation, like the Thai people, for calmness. Many are sent to neighboring Malaysia where their equable spirit helps to relax their more excitable cousins.

But even they are apt to lose control when males are overcome by sexual urges once a year.

"When they are eager for sex they get very serious indeed," said Nual. Last year, a normally placid male killed its mahout at Pang-La when it became fired up in pursuit of a mate.

Although there is still a role for the elephant in logging, the elimination of almost half of Thailand's thick forests in the last 25 years has reduced the demand for their skills.

While there were about 12,000 working elephants 10 years ago, Nual reckoned that there are now about 10,000.

In fast-shrinking forest land, the elephant's appetite for about 550 pounds of vegetation a day can prove an environmental hazard in itself.

Many forests are now designated conservation areas and the reduction in logging has led to unemployment among some elephants, even in the prime of their working life.

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