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December 17, 2018

Big Love: Elephants in Thailand

Big Love: Elephants in Thailand

Dan Brook


“Elephants are quite enough.”
― Agatha Christie

It is easy to love elephants. Even more so if you get the privilege to interact with them. I have been able to do so several times at elephant sanctuaries, especially the wonderful Elephant Nature Park, in Thailand, where Elephas maximus indicus is the official national symbol, as well as the largest living land animal in Asia.

“Elephants have a way of being in this world which transcends what we humans label instinct and survival”, according to Eleanor O’Hanlon. “They live according to patterns of belonging which are ancient, beautiful, and deeply meaningful.” Elephants are charismatic megafauna.

Elephants are highly intelligent (on the level of great apes), self-aware, social, emotional, and have great memories. Family structures are fluid, though are more likely to be led by a small group of matriarchs. Wild elephant populations are tragically in precipitous decline, due especially to habitat loss and poaching (for ivory, meat, leather, circuses, zoos, and tourist elephant camps). Elephants have tragically been used for labor, war, entertainment, culture, and symbolism, sometimes also for meat and body parts.

Pachyderm, another name for elephant, means “thick skin” and theirs is about an inch and a half thick (3.8 cm). Their trunk contains as many as 60,000 muscles! Elephants use their trunks for breathing, watering, feeding, touching, dusting, sound production and communication, washing, pinching, grasping, defense and offense, and whatever else they want. The trunk (or proboscis) can hold at least a gallon (4 liters) of water.

Elephants are mega-herbivores and consume hundreds of pounds (hundreds of kilograms) of plant matter per day, about 10% of their body weight. They have four big teeth at a time and can have six sets of teeth in their lifetime. They drink 20–50 gallons (80-200 liters) of water a day and use even more for bathing.

Elephants communicate frequently, yet about two-thirds of the sounds elephants make are too low for humans to hear. Like humans, elephants can determine the ethnicity, sex, and age of humans from vocal cues. Their gestation period is 18–22 months, the calf weighs about 220 lb (100 kg) at birth, nurses for up to three years, reaches adulthood at 17, and has a life expectancy of about 60 years in the wild. Like humans, some elephants have lived to over a hundred.

If we want to learn elephant wisdom, not simply knowledge about elephants, we could aspire to be strong yet careful, wise yet playful, wild yet civil, sensitive yet tough, self-preservationist yet altruistic, voracious yet discerning, independent yet social, powerful yet respectful.

It isn’t difficult to fall in love with elephants, given how amazing they are. It gives new meaning to “big love”.

I’m wondering, however, what we do with that love.

What do we do to spread awareness and compassion for elephants? How are we making their lives better?

What about other animals? Pets, wildlife, livestock? What are we doing for them?

What about human animals? Our family, friends, neighbors, classmates, coworkers? What about workers, farmers, strangers?

What about yourself? How could you be more compassionate and loving toward yourself, instead of being self-critical and self-destructive?

Don’t hoard your love. Like a candle, the more we share our light, the more light there is, the more it could be shared, and the more your light can be relit by others, if and when necessary.

That would be beneficial for both humans and elephants. And the world would be a better and more loving place for all of us.


Dan Brook, Ph.D. teaches sociology at San Jose State University, from where he organizes the annual Hands on Thailand (HoT) program. Dan has free ebooks on Smashwords.

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