1. As any visitor to the Land of Smiles can attest, Thai people have a reverence for elephants, considering them regal and noble creatures. In fact, elephants have represented Thailand as long as the nation has been in existence, even appearing on ensigns and flags.
2. One of the first-ever depictions of Thai people, a wall painting at Angkor Wat in neighboring Cambodia showing a Thai military unit, includes elephants that were used for war.
3. There are currently about 3-4,000 elephants in Thailand, a huge drop off from the 1850s, when 100,000 elephants roamed the country.
4. About half of all elephants in Thailand are domesticated and 20% of all elephants in Thailand are believed to live in the northern province of Chang Mai. In the wild, elephants live in National Park Reserves.
5. Tragically, the numbers of Asian elephants have been so pared, they are now classified as endangered according to the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN’s) Red List of Threatened Animals. Centuries of hunting and the destruction of their natural habitat as settlement took place caused this dramatic drop off in the elephant population.
6. Many of the male elephants were hunted and poached for the ivory in their tusks, which is a terrible problem that afflicts African elephants, too. In 1989, Thailand joined the rest of the globe in instituting a ban on elephant ivory in an attempt to protect the animals.
7. Female elephants usually lack visible tusks, as do some other species of male elephants in places such as northeast India. Male elephants in Thailand have tusks.
8. The two most common species of elephants in the world are African Elephants and Asian Elephants. Each has unique characteristics, but today, we’ll talk about Asian elephants, and more specifically elephants in Thailand.
9. Asian elephants belong to a very specific taxonomy, as do all living things. According to the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS), the proper name classification for the Asian Elephants is:
Genera & species: Elephas maximus (Asian elephant)
10. Asian elephants typically live in tropical climates in grassy areas and lowland forests, all the way up to cooler mountain terrain up to 10,000 feet high. They usually live right by large bodies of fresh water.
11. Although they’re some of the biggest animals on earth, elephants are actually herbivores.
12. While living in the wild, elephants use their agile trunks to gather fruit, bark, grasses, leaves, and herbs, and then chew and process it with large molars, eating up to 300 lbs. of food a day. While living in zoos or in captivity, each elephant typically eats about 125 lbs. of hay, ten pounds of herbivore pellets, ten pounds of vegetables and fruits, and a few leafy branches as dessert.
13. Elephants also use their trunks similar to how human beings use their digits, allowing them to delicately pick up small objects all the way to heavier work like tearing down tree limbs. They even extend their trunks like a handshake when meeting another elephant.
14. How sophisticated is an elephant’s trunk? Each trunk has more than 40,000 muscles, more than all the muscles in a human body combined!
15. Asian elephants are gray, a coloration that acts as a natural defense by allowing them to blend into the shade of their natural habitats.
16. Where does the saying “An elephant never forgets,” come from? Elephants have the largest brains of any land mammal on earth. They also have the largest volume of cerebral cortex of any land mammal, used for cognitive processing.
17. Asian elephants are so smart, that along with dolphins and some apes, they are the only animals that can recognize themselves in a mirror.
18. Even though they’re such huge creatures, elephants are silent when they walk, due to their wide, padded feet.
19. Elephants are known for their trunks, tusks, and also their charmingly large, flappy ears. Their ears actually help them cool off.
20. Elephants have skin that’s up to 1 inch thick, but is still sensitive to the sun.
21. Male elephants in Thailand can grow up to 21 feet long, stand 10 feet high, and weigh more than 5 tons, about 11,000 lbs.! Female elephants grow to about 8 ½ feet high and weight less than males.
22. Elephants are sensitive to the extreme sun and hot temperatures of tropical climates. They often need to hide in the shade or in water like rivers during the hottest times of the day. They also use their trunks to squirt water over their backs or into their mouths, or blow dust and dirt on their backs to cool themselves.
23. Elephants communicate with a language of rumbles, bellows, moans, growls, and other low-frequency sounds. The noises they use to communicate can travel up to a mile or more, reaching other packs of elephants.
24. Female elephants are called cows and males are called bulls. A baby elephant is called a calf.
25. Calfs nurse for the first two to four years of their lives, and up until their first birthday, gain 2-3 lbs. every day! Once they’re weaned off of nursing, young male elephants usually wander off on their own to establish their independence. Females stay a little longer, and once they reach about 13 to 20 years old, they can start having their own young.
26. Once impregnated, females carry for 20 to 22 months before giving birth, and usually have only one baby elephant at a time, though it is possible to have more. Newborn calfs enter the world already weighing around 200 lbs. and 3 feet tall.
27. Elephants in the wild have a life expectancy of 30-50 years, and some live up to 60.
28. Female and young male Asian elements live in herds with formal social orders. The oldest and largest female acts as the matriarch, dictating activities, movement, and passing down decorum. Herds sometimes join larger groups to form clans.
29. Asian elephants inhabit India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, Nepal, Bangladesh, and southern China. They once were found from Iraq all the way to the Himalayas and as far south as Java.
30. Elephants are extremely social, and are healthiest and happiest when they have frequent physical contact and communication with other elephants. Living solo or in captivity often leaves them lonely, confused, unhappy, and unhealthy.
In part two of this blog, we’ll cover the controversial topic of elephants in captivity and as tourist attractions, including conservation efforts and how to find a safe, responsible elephant refuge if you want to experience elephants in Thailand up close and personal.