Charge of the elephants

In the ancient capital, Julie Miller meets a conservationist who champions the pachyderm’s ferocious warrior past.

LAITHONGRIEN MEEPAN, the owner of the largest private elephant collection in the world, is a loud, excitable man. Perhaps as a result of competing with 180 trumpeting pachyderms, he booms rather than talks, gesturing wildly as he extols the virtues of his cumbersome charges.

Unlike other Asian elephant conservationists, however, it’s not the sweetness, intelligence or sense of humour of jumbos that fuels his passion. Instead, he’s spruiking a less endearing quality of the world’s biggest land mammal: its ferocity.

“These were war animals, warriors!” Laithongrien hollers, banging his fist on a table. “The most valuable elephants were killers – if they weren’t goring the enemy, they were squashing them. Elephants made Thailand what it is today – they fought for this country, saved this county.”

That the historic significance of the elephant is foremost in Laithongrien’s philosophy is no surprise, given the location of his camp – Thailand’s former royal capital of Ayutthaya. Here, 85 kilometres north of Bangkok amid some of the most impressive temple ruins in Asia, Laithongrien keeps his elephants on hallowed ground: the World Heritage-listed Royal Elephant Kraal.

Massive teak pylons, sturdy enough to resist centuries of wear and tear by five-tonne tuskers, mark the perimeter of this historic stockade, in which wild elephants were rounded up and trained for wartime duties.

Dating from the 16th century, this structure – the only one of its kind remaining in Thailand – celebrates the glory days of Siam, when the wealthy and cosmopolitan empire stretched from Burma to Cambodia, presided over by a formidable army of elephant-riding soldiers.

A statue in Ayutthaya’s city centre captures the drama of one of the most legendary battles, in 1585, when King Naresuan the Great vanquished his Burmese enemy in a sword duel atop wrestling elephants. It’s scenes such as this that Laithongrien tries to emulate during his celebrated historical

re-enactments, demonstrating the skills of the mahouts and the athleticism of his elephants within the confines of the kraal during festivals and special events.

A born showman, Laithongrien also delights in training elephants for the film industry, with Oliver Stone’s Alexander at the top of his credits. “Did you see those elephants fighting, those tuskers?” he boasts. “That was me, I did that. Big job. Colin Farrell.”

Performing elephants is a controversial issue in conservation circles. But Laithongrien pulls no punches – his elephants all earn their keep, excluding nursing mothers, babies and the elderly. Many of his charges can be seen wearing red- and gold-trimmed livery as they carry tourists around Ayutthaya’s temple sites. Some of his brighter stars are trained to paint, delighting crowds and art critics with their childlike brushstrokes.

From the moment I enter the kraal, it’s clear that breeding is one of the camp’s priorities. Six baby elephants, as rambunctious as toddlers in a playground, charge untethered around the yard, the hapless visitors mere skittles to these half-tonne bowling balls. These youngsters are part of the world’s most successful captive breeding program, with 37 young born at the camp since 2000.

Bull elephants – of which Laithongrien has more than 20; magnificent beasts with gleaming ivory tusks – are not easy to care for, requiring specialist care and one-on-one attention. But it’s a challenge he relishes. “All elephants are welcome here,” he says.

The rehabilitation of rogue elephants – ones that have killed their mahouts or have a reputation for being uncontrollable – is his latest project, their aggressive natures a reflection of the kraal’s historic purpose.

The most recent of Laithongrien’s rescues is Natalie, who killed at least three people before she was brought to the kraal after an international fund-raising campaign.

Although now treated with due caution, this formerly abused elephant has found love and support from both humans and her own species, with the nursing mothers in particular welcoming her into the fold.

While the camp is clearly a successful commercial concern, elephant ownership is an expensive enterprise, with Laithongrien’s own considerable investment supported by charitable donations assisting elephant rescue and the purchase of adjoining land. Here, elephants can have a little freedom on their days off. Meepan also grows nutritious grasses to feed his growing stable.

While most tourists are content to plod around the ancient city on the back of an elephant, those who prefer a more hands-on experience can take part in the kraal’s ecotourism program, proceeds of which fund the purchase of elephants too old and weak to work. Run by two Australian women, Ewa Narkiewicz and Michelle Reedy, Elephantstay incorporates mahout training and elephant husbandry, with accommodation in simple bamboo huts in the mahout village overlooking the kraal.

Each participant is given access to an elephant during the three-day program, immersing themselves in the minutia of the animal’s care, including feeding, bathing and cleaning. Learning through hands-on experience, visitors can get a real sense of how to communicate with these complex animals, while gaining a deeper understanding of the mahout life.

The writer was a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

Trip notes

Getting there

Thai Airways flies daily from Sydney to Bangkok, priced from $1347. 1300 651 960, thaiairways.com.au. Ayutthaya is a 90-minute drive from Bangkok. Trains to Ayutthaya depart from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Station. www.railway.co.th. Buses depart from Bangkok’s northern terminal (Moh Chit). The ancient capital is also on the itinerary of some Chao Phraya river cruises. bangkok.com.

Staying there

Elephantstay at the Royal Elephant Kraal Village costs 12,000 baht ($383) for a three-day program. Price includes all meals and twin-share accommodation with all elephant activities. +66 80 668 7727, elephantstay.com.

Accommodation is available in Ayutthaya at the Krungsri River Hotel. +66 35 244 333, krungsririver.com.

More information

thailand.net.au.

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