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Tuesday, March 9, 1999

A love affair with the elephant

THE ELEPHANT IN THAI LIFE AND LEGEND, main text by William Warren, main photography by Pin Amranand. Bangkok: Monsoon Editions, 249 pp., 1,495 baht.

William Warren has written the texts of a number of illustrated books: "Legendary Thailand," "Thai Style," "The Chao Phraya River" and "Thai Garden Style." Warren also wrote "The Legendary American," a biography of Jim Thompson, who revived the Thai silk industry and disappeared mysteriously in Malaysia.

The texts are always well written and thoroughly researched. His latest book lives up to his high standard. It is liberally and beautifully illustrated with old and new photographs of the Thai elephant and with reproductions of paintings and murals in which the beast has been constantly depicted.

Warren tells us that "in both physical and legendary form the elephant has existed as long as the kingdom itself, an intricate part of the culture. . ." Interesting details are given about elephants: They are vegetarian and can consume 250 kg of hay and 20 liters of water in a day. The trunk can move great logs and kill an enemy; its tip acts as a very keen nose.

The book is full of colorful anecdotes about elephants by such illustrious persons as Simon de la Loubere, who came to Thailand in the late 17th century with a French delegation; Sir John Bowring, who negotiated a trade treaty in 1855 with King Mongkut; Isabella Bird, who describes riding an elephant in 1879; and the late W.A.R. Wood ("Consul in Paradise"), who witnessed the killing of a man by an elephant.

Elephants have featured prominently in Thai history. The Thai flag used to be a white elephant on a red background. They were used in war; caparisoned with elaborate howdahs on their backs, they took part in royal ceremonies with the king aboard a magnificent specimen; hunting wild elephants was the favorite pastime of King Marai (late 17th century) who captured more than 300 elephants in a year.

Elephants were used for logging in the teak forests, for transport, with passengers sitting in the howdah, for carrying goods, for moving heavy equipment -- there is a photograph of an etching dated 1893 showing field guns on the backs of elephants.

Warren explodes several myths about elephants: They do not live for over 100 years, their life span is about the same as an average man's; their intelligence is not exceptional, their brains are small; and the much revered white elephant is an albino and is not white at all. Nevertheless it is regarded as auspicious.

Today, Warren states, Thai elephants "face a precarious future." There are only between 1,000 and 1,500 wild elephants left, and domesticated elephants number between 3,500 and 4,000.

There are some distressing photographs of elephants among the traffic in Bangkok, brought to the capital by their mahouts to earn money.

Although the elephant is a bulky, lumbering beast with a sad look in its eye, it has a charm that has captivated people all over the world. This book comprehensively and enjoyably tells the story of the Thai elephant, both in reality and in art.

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