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Queen Tong


Elephants have a unique way of greeting each other. They rumble, flap ears, entwine trunks and urinate. Scrambling out of a wooden longboat onto the beach alongside Thailand's Maekok River I had no idea that Queen Tong would greet me.

 

She was a majestic sight, some nine thousand pounds of wrinkled skin, massive domed head, and feet the size of tree trunks. Chewing on bamboo, she met my curious stare. Uncurling her trunk, she wiggled its tip in my direction. Suddenly she headed straight towards me. Imagine a twenty wheel truck heading your way and you've got the idea. I wasn't sure if she intended to run me down, but I was so fascinated I didn't care. And I was too awestruck to move out of the way.

At least I could capture my impending death on film. I let the motor drive run, snapping frame after frame until all I saw in the viewfinder was a lushly fringed amber eye. Firing off the last frame, I lowered the camera to see if I was still alive.

Tong and I were eye to eye. Toe to toe.

"Shall we dance?" she asked. I swear she did.

"Why sure..." I stammered.

"Climb aboard," she invited me.

And off we went, into the tangle of Thai rainforest.

Sharon riding. Copyright: Warren Lieb.Elephant Lore

For thousands of years, elephants were worshipped as gods. Ganesha the Hindu god, is said to remove obstacles and bring good fortune to believers. Buddhists believe that in a previous life Buddha was born in the body of an elephant, and that touching an elephant help achieve enlightenment. A charming folktale tells how elephants once roamed both the earth and sky, because they had wings. One day a hermit was meditating beneath a huge banyan tree, when a noisy flock of elephants crashed into the tree branches. When a branch fell on his head, the hermit lost his temper and used his special powers to amputate their wings. From that time on, elephants have been without wings.

Touring Tong’s Rainforest

"My family was once very large you know," Tong tells me as we tour her beautiful home. "At the turn of the century, we numbered around 200,000. Now the poachers, and loss of our forest habitat has cut my family down to 13,000."

Much of the rainforest is being turned into more lucrative cattle ranches, luxury hotels, and housing for a growing population. And elephants once employed in hauling teak from forests to markets are now working in the tourist trade, giving rides to tourists like me.

"Many of my relatives now perform in circuses," Tong says sadly. "They stand on their heads, and carry half naked women around the ring. Did you know we once were royalty?"For centuries white elephants were in high demand by Thailand's King. They were brought to the King's court, where they were worshipped and never ridden.

"Attendants would shade us from the sun with silk umbrellas," Tong boasts. "We ate delicious food from silver platters. We were the King's equal."

Copyright: Warren Lieb.Elephant Facts

An elephant has the largest brain of any land animal, hence the true saying "an elephant never forgets." In the wild, they appear to remember their relationships with dozens of other elephants, some of whom they only see once in a while. Their intelligence is so vast, elephants have learned to use computers and create works of art. They are capable of intense nurturing-if a family member becomes ill, the group forms a hospice unit, hovering nearby for support and bringing food. Female elephants will use their trunk and front feet to rouse a sick calf, or even carry a weak baby across their tusks. At elephant funerals, family members mourn, caressing the deceased with their trunks, covering them with branches. Coming upon an elephant skeleton, a herd will pass around pieces of ivory and bone, trunk to trunk, as if to pay last respects and embrace the dearly beloved's spirit.

Most interesting is the way elephants communicate with each other. Their vocalizations range from high pitched squeaks to deep rumbles. Low frequency calls are heard by other elephants miles away. An elephant holds her ears out wide, scanning the air for warnings, news and gossip. They don't need cell phones to keep in touch.

Copyright: Warren Lieb.Our Tour Continues

Riding an elephant is tricky. Perched on a hard wooden seat strapped to her back, I lurch backward and forward. Think about clinging to the roll bar of an open air jeep, as it backs down a chuck holed ski hill.

Despite the roller coaster ride, Tong is actually quite graceful, wading through a silent river and up into the shady forest. At the riverbank she plunges her trunk deeply into the muddy water, and sprays both sides of her hot dusty body. Sort of an elephant version of sunscreen I guess. Being a considerate tour guide, not one drop of muck gets on my white shorts.

"You're too nice," I compliment her.

" I know," she nods, plodding on.

Her mahout, Keo, catches up with us and climbs onto her ears. He lights a cigarette, jams his heels into her jaws, and screams "Rhee, rhee."

"He wants me to finish the tour," Tong whispers to me. "He says I've talked too much." Copyright: Warren Lieb.I ask Keo to kill the cig ( I have allergies), and he jumps off, annoyed. Tong and I journey on alone, happy to be on our own. She strides along faster and faster, I hold on 'til my knuckles turn white. Soon we've caught up with the other tourists in the elephant train. As Thailand's lush green mountains rise up around us, I smile under a sapphire sky. I am honored, keeping company with Queen Tong.

Closing Facts

As the world population exceeds six billion, will there be anywhere left for wild elephants to live? How can we protect the habitat they need as homes?

And what about poaching? Ivory has been highly valued since the 9th century. Thousands of elephants have died, their tusks ending up as Japanese netsuke, piano keys, billard balls, jewelry, even furniture. Can you believe elephant feet were once fashionable as umbrella stands? But things are looking up: Since 1989, more than 115 countries have joined CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which bans trade in anything made from endangered species. So hopefully ivory will stay off the world market...

A Goodbye Hug from Queen Tong

Scrambling out of the hard wooden seat I've ridden for hours, I'm sore, sunburned and sad my time with Tong is over. What a delightful tour guide. I just had this awful feeling I might never see her again.

"Thank you for an unforgettable afternoon," I smiled, snapping one last photo.

"My pleasure," she smiled. I swear it was a smile.

Curling her trunk around my waist, Tong hugged me as only an elephant can. I knew she would remember me. My fear of her was long gone. Instead, I feared for a world without Queen Tong, a world without elephants.

For More Information:

To visit elephants in Thailand, go to the Tourism Authority of Thailand website at www.tat.or.th/.

For centuries white elephants were in high demand by Thailand's King. They were brought to the King's court, where they were worshipped and never ridden.

"Attendants would shade us from the sun with silk umbrellas," Tong boasts. "We ate delicious food from silver platters. We were the King's equal."

Copyright: Warren Lieb.Elephant Facts

An elephant has the largest brain of any land animal, hence the true saying "an elephant never forgets." In the wild, they appear to remember their relationships with dozens of other elephants, some of whom they only see once in a while. Their intelligence is so vast, elephants have learned to use computers and create works of art. They are capable of intense nurturing-if a family member becomes ill, the group forms a hospice unit, hovering nearby for support and bringing food. Female elephants will use their trunk and front feet to rouse a sick calf, or even carry a weak baby across their tusks. At elephant funerals, family members mourn, caressing the deceased with their trunks, covering them with branches. Coming upon an elephant skeleton, a herd will pass around pieces of ivory and bone, trunk to trunk, as if to pay last respects and embrace the dearly beloved's spirit.

Most interesting is the way elephants communicate with each other. Their vocalizations range from high pitched squeaks to deep rumbles. Low frequency calls are heard by other elephants miles away. An elephant holds her ears out wide, scanning the air for warnings, news and gossip. They don't need cell phones to keep in touch.

Copyright: Warren Lieb.Our Tour Continues

Riding an elephant is tricky. Perched on a hard wooden seat strapped to her back, I lurch backward and forward. Think about clinging to the roll bar of an open air jeep, as it backs down a chuck holed ski hill.

Despite the roller coaster ride, Tong is actually quite graceful, wading through a silent river and up into the shady forest. At the riverbank she plunges her trunk deeply into the muddy water, and sprays both sides of her hot dusty body. Sort of an elephant version of sunscreen I guess. Being a considerate tour guide, not one drop of muck gets on my white shorts.

"You're too nice," I compliment her.

" I know," she nods, plodding on.

Her mahout, Keo, catches up with us and climbs onto her ears. He lights a cigarette, jams his heels into her jaws, and screams "Rhee, rhee."

"He wants me to finish the tour," Tong whispers to me. "He says I've talked too much." Copyright: Warren Lieb.I ask Keo to kill the cig ( I have allergies), and he jumps off, annoyed. Tong and I journey on alone, happy to be on our own. She strides along faster and faster, I hold on 'til my knuckles turn white. Soon we've caught up with the other tourists in the elephant train. As Thailand's lush green mountains rise up around us, I smile under a sapphire sky. I am honored, keeping company with Queen Tong.

Closing Facts

As the world population exceeds six billion, will there be anywhere left for wild elephants to live? How can we protect the habitat they need as homes?

And what about poaching? Ivory has been highly valued since the 9th century. Thousands of elephants have died, their tusks ending up as Japanese netsuke, piano keys, billard balls, jewelry, even furniture. Can you believe elephant feet were once fashionable as umbrella stands? But things are looking up: Since 1989, more than 115 countries have joined CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which bans trade in anything made from endangered species. So hopefully ivory will stay off the world market...

A Goodbye Hug from Queen Tong

Scrambling out of the hard wooden seat I've ridden for hours, I'm sore, sunburned and sad my time with Tong is over. What a delightful tour guide. I just had this awful feeling I might never see her again.

"Thank you for an unforgettable afternoon," I smiled, snapping one last photo.

"My pleasure," she smiled. I swear it was a smile.

Curling her trunk around my waist, Tong hugged me as only an elephant can. I knew she would remember me. My fear of her was long gone. Instead, I feared for a world without Queen Tong, a world without elephants.

For More Information:

To visit elephants in Thailand, go to the Tourism Authority of Thailand website at www.tat.or.th/.