A family of elephant caretakers in Thailand fear for their future

The Hemarat family has been looking after the giant beasts as mahouts in southern Trang province for about 60 years.
Watjanaphol Srichumpuang
Trang province, Thailand
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A mahout sits next to his elephant during an annual blessing ceremony in Trang, southern Thailand, May 18, 2024. [Watjanaphol Srichumpuang/BenarNews]

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Elephants are treated to a fruit buffet following the blessing ceremony in Trang, Thailand, May 18, 2024. [Watjanaphol Srichumpuang/BenarNews]

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Hem Hemarat, a mahout who has raised more than 100 elephants since getting one from Myanmar about 60 years ago, participates in a blessing ceremony in Trang, May 18, 2024. [Watjanaphol Srichumpuang/BenarNews]

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A monk blesses an elephant in Trang, May 18, 2024. [Watjanaphol Srichumpuang/BenarNews]

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The blessing leaves a mark on an elephant’s trunk, May 18, 2024. [Watjanaphol Srichumpuang/BenarNews]

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A monk blesses a man participating in the ceremony in Trang, May 18, 2024. [Watjanaphol Srichumpuang/BenarNews]

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A mahout cares for male elephant Plai Thong as it bathes in a river in Trang, May 16, 2024. [Watjanaphol Srichumpuang/BenarNews]

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A male elephant cools off as the temperature in southern Thailand reaches as high as 48 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit), May 16, 2024. [Watjanaphol Srichumpuang/BenarNews]

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Mahouts, who must care for their elephants around the clock, can be paid up to 5,000 baht (U.S. $136) per month, May 16, 2024. [Watjanaphol Srichumpuang/BenarNews]

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Chains, including one seen here wrapped around a tree stump, are used to train elephants in southern Thailand, May 17, 2024. [Watjanaphol Srichumpuang/BenarNews]

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A tourist rides an elephant on Hem Hemarat’s property in Trang, southern Thailand, May 16, 2024. [Watjanaphol Srichumpuang/BenarNews]

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A mahout cares for his elephant in Trang, May 16, 2024. [Watjanaphol Srichumpuang/BenarNews]

About six decades ago, 30-year-old Hem Hemarat walked into Myanmar and brought back an elephant three days later – launching the beginning of the first mahout (elephant caretaker) family in Trang, a province in southern Thailand.

Today, dozens of descendant elephants drive tourism in Trang and nearby provinces – while those taking care of them have seen their profits fall.

“We have performed a rite to tame elephants and make them compliant to mahouts since 1973, but elephants can be very dangerous when in rut and can kill people. Even mahouts who have been working with elephants for decades have been killed by elephants that are in rut,” Hem told BenarNews, referring to annual blessing ceremonies when elephants are in heat.

Atthaphon Charoenchansa, director-general of the Thai National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation Department, said at least 210 people had been killed by wild elephants in Thailand since 2015, the year the government began keeping statistics.

About 50 to 60 elephants live in several districts of Trang. Hemarat family members, who care for 15 elephants, are not sure what the future could bring. 

A third-generation mahout from Hem’s family blamed the coronavirus pandemic for cutting into profits and pushing some out of the business.

“Elephant raising used to earn tens of thousands of baht per month, which allowed us to support our family well. But during COVID-19, our family had no work, no logging job and no tourists due to the lockdown,” said Pimporn Hemarat, Hem’s granddaughter.

“The elephants we raised became thinner because the family could not find enough money to buy food,” she said. “The elephants eat 200 to 400 kg [440 to 880 lbs] of food per day.”

Female elephants perform in shows and offer rides to attract tourists across southern tourist hotspots in Krabi, Phang Nga and Phuket. Larger male elephants, who can be identified by their tusks, can be used for hauling logs in deep forests cut off from vehicle traffic.

Another third-generation Hemarat mahout and a relative of Pimporn, said the business was changing already.

“Most elephant-raising families have stopped being mahouts and have turned to hiring people to be mahouts instead. They earn around 5,000 baht [U.S. $136] a month plus a share from attending events, and have to take care of elephants every day,” Phutthichat Hemarat told BenarNews. 


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