Pachy­derm Pa­rade

THE SURIN ELE­PHANT ROUNDUP HAS ITS ORI­GINS IN THAI­LAND’S ROYAL HUNTS IN THE AYUT­THAYA PE­RIOD. TO­DAY, THE FES­TI­VAL IS A NOD TO THE RE­GION’S STA­TUS AS THE “LAND OF ELE­PHANTS”

Asian Geographic - - East Asia -

Al­though

it may feel as though it is tai­lor­made for tourists, the Surin Ele­phant Roundup is a cul­tural win­dow into man’s long­stand­ing as­so­ci­a­tion with ele­phants in the north­east­ern province of Thai­land, with its roots in the Ayut­thaya era (14th–18th cen­tury), when ele­phant hunts were show­cased as a pub­lic event. Back then, peo­ple would gather to wit­ness the hun­ters re­turn­ing from the jun­gle, us­ing their tra­di­tional meth­ods to cor­ral wild ele­phants to­ward an en­clo­sure known as a kraal.

Over time, the spec­ta­cle be­came more of a staged re-en­act­ment of the hunt, and by the 20th cen­tury, trained ele­phants were in­cor­po­rated into the ex­hi­bi­tion, which was pri­mar­ily put on for the en­ter­tain­ment of royal guests. Among the most fa­mous vis­i­tors was Rus­sian prince Ni­cholas II, who at­tended in 1891.

The roundups lost their royal pa­tron­age in 1938, and it wasn’t un­til the 1960s that it was re­vived as an an­nual fes­ti­val in Surin. This re­gion is home to many of Thai­land’s Kui peo­ple, an eth­nic mi­nor­ity whose iden­tity is closely in­ter­twined with ele­phant hunt­ing. Dur­ing the Ayut­thaya pe­riod, the Kui caught an av­er­age of 25 ele­phants an­nu­ally dur­ing the monsoon sea­son, in the forests along the Cam­bo­dian bor­der.

The Kui tra­di­tion­ally made their liv­ing cap­tur­ing and train­ing wild ele­phants from the jun­gle for on­ward use in war, heavy labour and trans­porta­tion. But with log­ging banned in 1989, the role of ele­phants shifted to meet tourist in­ter­est. To­day, the fes­ti­val is still a nod to the re­gion’s ele­phant her­itage, with re-en­act­ments of prepa­ra­tions for and par­tic­i­pa­tion in a hunt, but it also in­cor­po­rates trained ele­phants who per­form tricks, com­pete in a tug of war, and play foot­ball to a sta­dium of cheer­ing Thai stu­dents and for­eign tourists.

Be­fore the fes­ti­val of­fi­cially kicks off, prepa­ra­tions are made in Ban Tha Klang, a small vil­lage 60 kilo­me­tres from Surin that is home to hun­dreds of Kui fam­i­lies. Men are cho­sen to per­form in the roundup and set off with a con­voy of ma­houts, who herd their ele­phants to Surin to set up camp, train, and of­fer tourists ele­phant rides and the chance to get up close and per­sonal with the an­i­mals.

On the Fri­day morn­ing dur­ing the third week of November, the fes­ti­val of­fi­cially kicks off with nearly 300 ele­phants car­ry­ing dig­ni­taries and ma­houts from the rail­way sta­tion through the streets of Surin to the ele­phant tusk round­about on Prasat Road, where a ban­quet of food

awaits the mighty crea­tures, who are known for their vo­ra­cious ap­petites. Ap­prox­i­mately 50 tonnes of neatl­yarranged pineap­ple, sugar cane, cu­cum­ber and wa­ter­melon sits on a 400-me­tre-long ta­ble set up on the road. As ele­phants de­scend on the food, vis­i­tors wan­der among the chaos in the street, with a loud­speaker blar­ing in the back­ground to re­mind peo­ple that they must not join in the feast. It’s no sur­prise that in 2003, the buf­fet set a Guin­ness World Record for the world’s “largest ele­phant buf­fet”.

To­day, the fes­ti­val is a nod to the re­gion’s ele­phant her­itage, with re-en­act­ments of prepa­ra­tions for and par­tic­i­pa­tion in a hunt

Satur­day morn­ing starts at Si Narong sta­dium, dubbed “ele­phant sta­dium”, where all the ele­phants gather and take part in a pa­rade, fol­lowed by dis­plays of tra­di­tional Kui ele­phant hunt­ing tech­niques and rit­u­als. Af­ter pay­ing re­spect to the roundup’s hunt­ing roots, the ele­phants dis­play their fancy foot- (and trunk-) work dur­ing a match of ele­phant foot­ball. The pace is slow and the score low, but it’s as­tound­ing to see how nim­ble and co­or­di­nated the ele­phants are with their big round feet. Ev­ery so of­ten, an ele­phant de­cides to break the rules, grips the ball in its trunk and makes a run for it, and the au­di­ence erupts into laugh­ter. The ele­phants also show off their skills at paint­ing on can­vas, and do log­ging reen­act­ments, rac­ing, and twirl hula hoops.

At one point, vol­un­teers from the au­di­ence lie in a row as an ele­phant steps over their bod­ies, with the ele­phants oc­ca­sion­ally – play­fully – pat­ting a vol­un­teer’s bot­tom.

Later in the day, an ele­phant takes on real-life sol­diers from the Royal Thai Army in a heated tug-of-war con­test. Even with as many as 100 men, they’re still no match for the strength of a sin­gle ele­phant.

The grand fi­nale is a re-en­act­ment of an an­cient bat­tle be­tween colour­fully dec­o­rated Thai and Burmese armies and their ele­phants.

The pro­gramme re­peats it­self the fol­low­ing day on Sun­day.

In the past decade, ele­phant tourism has been scru­ti­nised by the me­dia, with ad­vo­cacy groups shining a light on some of the neg­a­tive as­pects of the in­dus­try. Al­though con­di­tions and train­ing meth­ods ap­pear to be im­prov­ing, con­tro­versy still sur­rounds ele­phants be­ing used for rides, walk­ing in cities, as well as per­form­ing cir­cus tricks.

But the other harsh re­al­ity is that re­turn­ing to the jun­gle is sim­ply not an op­tion for trained pachy­derms, and so tourism of­fers a vi­able op­tion of sur­vival for Thai­land’s al­ready do­mes­ti­cated ele­phants – and a liveli­hood for their ma­houts.

Un­for­tu­nately, train­ing these ele­phants to per­form for tourists re­mains at the core of the roundup. While you’re unlikely to wit­ness any out­right cru­elty to­wards the ele­phants

For bet­ter pho­tos and a be­hind-thescenes look at the fes­ti­val, you can eas­ily wan­der around back­stage to see how ma­houts train and in­ter­act with their ele­phants.

An ele­phant grazes at dusk at the ma­hout camp area in Surin

Left A tra­di­tional wooden carv­ing of a dec­o­rated ele­phant sits back­stage above Ac­tors re-en­act a bat­tle be­tween Thai and Burmese armies right Thai per­form­ers wait back­stage at the Surin Ele­phant Roundup

Be­low Elab­o­rately dressed per­form­ers wait back­stage be­fore a tra­di­tional dance performance bot­tom An ele­phant steps over a vol­un­teer from the au­di­ence. The ele­phants play­fully pat the vol­un­teers on the bot­tom

Left Ele­phants play a game of foot­ball – much to the de­light of the crowd

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