Where Elephants Come to Heal

Three patients stand in a sunny spot outside a small hospital building. Behind them is impenetrable northern Thai jungle. They’re malnourished drug addicts, gaunt but nonetheless huge, and attached to drips to speed their rehabilitation.

What’s odd about these addicts is that they are elephants. These animals are shocking reminders that the global battle against drug addiction isn’t just about humans.

“Animals also become addicts,” explains Dr Sittidech Mahawangsakul, one of seven veterinarians at Lampang Elephant Hospital. The hospital, among four in this Southeast Asian nation, is devoted to the treatment of sick elephants, usually housing about 20 pachyderm patients. It also boasts a pharmacy and a department for fitting artificial limbs. It sits next door to the 121-hectare Thai Elephant Conservation Centre (TECC). Established 23 years ago, the TECC is a major tourist attraction and is government-run.

Many of the TECC’s visitors belatedly discover that it is next door to the Lampang Elephant Hospital. They are located around 60 km south of Chiang Mai, Thailand’s number-two city, just off the highway that continues another 32 km to the bustling market town of Lampang. Though the centre itself offers budget accommodation and the Lampang area has many hotels, most visitors make daytrips from Chiang Mai, which has even more plentiful lodgings in all price brackets.

While Lampang, where a new air terminal opened last year, is directly linked to Bangkok, there are far more flights between the capital and Chiang Mai.

Thailand is one of Asia’s top tourist destinations – a land of golden Buddhist temples and an ancient culture encompassing a distinctive musical style, classical dance and a justly famed spicy cuisine. Against a backdrop of striking natural beauty, the country has embraced modernity: luxury hotels (including beach resorts), freeway-linked provincial hubs, glitzy shopping malls backing onto colourful bargain-filled markets, historic palaces and museums, vibrant nightlife and more.

Woven deeply into Thailand’s social fabric is a revered monarchy. Indeed, King Bhumibol, who turns 89 in December, is the world’s longest-serving, currently reigning monarch. He was crowned in 1946. And, like the monarchy, elephants occupy a special place in Thai life.

Among the 50 elephants housed at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre – where 53-year-old Motala, who has a prosthetic leg after losing the limb to a land mine across the Myanmar border, is most famous – are four white elephants that belong to the king.

White elephants aren’t white at all. Nor are they albinos. These rarities are, however, paler-skinned than other elephants. In Thailand they’re widely regarded as sacred, with their owners considering it an honour to give them to the king. However, after inspections, only the best are accepted.

According to Dr Preecha Puangkam, the now-retired director of the hospital, “not all hospitalised elephants are drug-addicted – usually only about three at a time. We also see some with symptoms of stress manifested by disobedience. These are usually from cities. We blame car fumes and industrial pollution.

“We keep them in the jungle behind the hospital, put them on good diets with vitamin supplements – and within a few weeks they’re better. We recommend their owners don’t return them to the city.”

In the case of the drug-addicted elephants, it’s usually amphetamines. “We don’t give them ever-reducing doses of addictive drugs to wean them off,” Dr Preecha explains. “Instead, we stop these drugs altogether. Then we sometimes have to give them tranquillisers to calm them. Otherwise, it’s a matter of multivitamins and healthy diets to build them up – plus antibiotics to kill infections. We see them getting better in front of our eyes.”

More common are broken bones. But Dr Sittidech says this is sometimes a result of drug addiction. Heartless owners discovered that ‘speed’ pills drive elephants to work harder at log-stacking. “They work furiously under the influence of drugs. So frenzied are they that they fall into holes or try to move logs that are too heavy. They fall, breaking bones. Fortunately, broken bones mend, as they do in humans.”

One quirk identified by Dr Sittidech: “We have to calculate medication dosages particularly carefully. A typical human is around 75 kg, while an Asian elephant is about 5000 kg.” Asian elephants are slightly smaller than African elephants, the world’s largest land mammals. Unlike African elephants, many Asian elephants are domesticated.

“With medications, we supply them orally – sometimes an entire handful of vitamin pills – or through drips. Bad-tasting medicines are hidden in food.”

As Thailand develops, elephants are increasingly hit by vehicles. Thailand has an estimated 3000 elephants wild in the jungle and another 4000 domesticated – either working in logging or in the tourism industry.

After treatment, elephants are returned to owners, unless they were brought in by people who found them abandoned, in which case they are released to the conservation centre.

I wander from the hospital, where patients are housed in large open-sided sheds, towards the sound of music. An elephant orchestra – with elephants playing a range of instruments including drums, gongs and trumpets – is entertaining tourists in a small grandstand. It’s an amusing cacophony! The animals generally play whenever the hapless conductor – a centre employee – points at them. Sometimes their trunks blow harmonicas into their own ears.

Down at a little stream, I watch tourists swimming with elephants who are enjoying daily baths. Baby elephants playfully spurt water at each other. Other elephants disappear into the jungle, taking tourists for short rides.

Back at the grandstand I watch a demonstration of log-rolling and other activities before easels are set up. Four elephants holding paintbrushes with their trunks produce not just abstracts but pictures of vases of brightly coloured flowers.

The elephants paint for about ten minutes, each with a mahout (trainer or keeper) at its side. An elephant and its mahout form life-long partnerships.

After the show I stroll across a clearing to inspect brightly hued squares drying in the tropical sun. It turns out these squares are paper made of elephant dung mixed with paint to give them distinctive pigmentations. In an adjoining workshop, these sheets are cut into different sizes and packaged as writing paper, or gummed together into notebooks. A souvenir shop near the entrance features displays of elephant dung paper for sale, as well as examples of elephant art.

After buying paper and paintings, a visiting German couple tell me that their most treasured souvenir is neither of these. Instead, it’s the memory of seeing how the hospital weans these delightful creatures off dangerous and addictive drugs.

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