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LEXICON

 

 

Asian Elephant

Common name for the largest living land animal in Asia, with the scientific name Elephas maximus. The Asian Elephant is naturally a forest dweller but actually roams through a vast range of topography to a height of 1,700 meters. They live in medium sized herds of mostly females and their calves. Female elephants are pregnant for 22 months. The males leave the herd around puberty and live solitary or in small temporary groups. A full-grown elephant consumes about 180 kg of food each day and takes in almost twice as much that amount of water. For chewing, it has large ridged molars, known as krahm chang (กรามช้าง - fig.). Those continue to grow throughout their lifetime, growing from the back towards the front, thus pushing the older ones ever forward as the newer ones grow, eventually puhing the old one out completely. This slow process, somewhat reminiscent of a conveyor belt, happens up to six times in their livespan. Besides several high pinched sounds that are unhearable to humans and with which elephants communicate over distances as far away as 10 kms, they are able to produce another five trumpet-like sounds. For eating as well as for producing sound elephants use their trunk, a movable elongated prehensile nose made up of more than 150,000 separate muscles. There are no perspiratory glands on an elephant's skin, yet instead they sweat from theirs toes (fig.). In addition, their oversized droopy skin creates a natural cooling system and they flap their ears to control their body temperature, as the draught created by the fluttering cools the internal capillaries. Behind the ears, elephants have sensetive nerves, which mahouts (fig.) pinch with the feet to steer their animal. In Thai history the Asian Elephant played a major role in the construction of temples and palaces, and in the exploitation of teak forests (fig.). In the Army, it was an important means of transport and legendary battles were often fought on elephant backs (fig.). They can run up to 23 kms per hour. Nowadays a large number of animals are employed in the tourist industry offering shows (fig.) and rides, both in nature (fig.) and in cities that attract visitors (fig.), though they are often still used for wood logging during the rainy season. They haul the felled trees out of the jungle and into the river. The felled trees then float downstream on the rain-swollen waters. The approximate age and height of an elephant can be determined by its footprint, since its shoulder height is exactly twice the circumference of its footprint. Thai law compels that working elephants retire at the age of sixty-one, and sometimes they are released back into the wild, were they can live up to the age of eighty. The country also has a hospital for elephants, located in Lampang and known in Thai as rohng phayaban chang khong moonlaniti pheuan chang (fig.). Thailand has around 3,000 domesticated elephants, whilst its wild elephant population has plummeted from 4,000 twenty years ago to an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 today, although proper data is lacking. In the past wild elephants were caught by snaring them with a lasso (fig.) or by driving them into a phaniad, i.e. an elephant kraal (fig.), an event which is commemorated in the annual Elephant Round-up, a festival in Surin that celebrates Thailand's elephants (fig.). Unlike African elephants (fig.), where ivory poaching contributed most to the drastic population decline, Asian elephants have been much more affected by the rapid loss of habitat. In 1950, some 60 percent of Thailand was covered with forest, today it is less than 15 percent, and declining. Contrary to the African elephant where both male and female elephants​ develop tusks, only the Asian bull wears sizeable ivory tusks (fig.), whereas the female Asian Elephant usually lacks tusks or has very small ones. If small tusks are present, they are usually barely visible and only seen when the female opens her mouth. Whereas previously the Asian Elephant was considered to be a single species, there are now three distinct subspecies recognized, i.e. Elephas maximus maximus from Sri Lanka (fig.), Elephas maximus indicus from mainland Asia, which includes both the Indian (fig.) and the Thai elephant, and Elephas maximus sumatranus from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. In the history of Thailand, as well as in ancient India, there are records of elephants being used in the execution of condemned prisoners, when one form of capital punishment consisted of crushing the convict to death (fig.). The latter's head was placed on a stone executioner's block and then trampled on by an elephant. In a later period, elephants in Thailand were used in the torture of prisoners by letting them kick a large rattan takraw ball (fig.), referred to as the Elephant Ball (fig.), that on the inside had sharp nails sticking through, and in which a prisoner was placed. Elephants are also often used in metaphors and Thai proverbs. Elephants are said to bring good luck and prosperity, and they are often depicted in art and on souvenirs, and appear as effigies in all sizes and materials (fig.). Together with the bull, the lion and the horse, it is one of the four animals, that represent the four stages in the life of the Buddha (fig.). In Thai chang and in Sanskrit karin. See also Elephant Building, White Elephant, elephant trunk pose, phlaay and phang.