Greenpeace Southeast Asia


What do ancient elephant poachers and Greenpeace have in common? by Chuck Baclagon
A mahout elder stands before an elephant while waiting to perform a Pa-Kam ritual, a traditional ceremony to call on mahout ancestors for for good luck and safety before an elephant journey.

A mahout elder stands before an elephant while waiting to perform a Pa-Kam ritual, a traditional ceremony to call on mahout ancestors for for good luck and safety before an elephant journey.

September 12, 2009

We launched the Chang(e) Caravan last Saturday with a traditional Thai mahout ceremony called the Pak-Am. Now, if you knew what the Pak-Am was originally, you’d wonder why on earth it would be part of a Greenpeace project launch!

The ritual’s origins can be traced to a centuries old Khmer (now Cambodia) practice –a mahout prays for safety before he goes into the jungle to catch elephants.  In other words, it’s a ritual that originated with elephant poaching.  Yes–you read that right –elephant poaching.

Interesting, eh?  But these days, now that elephant poaching is (thankfully) illegal, the Pak-Am has taken on a milder forms.

One is as a rite of passage for mahouts—to be a respected mahout one has to pass the Pak-Am.  (In the past, this meant that the mahout had to have caught 11 to 16 elephants.)

The other is as a ceremony before a long journey.  The mahout elders pray to the spirit of ancestor mahouts for good luck and safety before setting off with their elephants.

The Pak-Am last Saturday (according to a mahout elder) was special—the last time a Pak-Am was practiced was 15 years ago.  The eldest mahout should know–he’s more than 80 years old and has been a mahout most of his life.

You can see the Pak-Am’s poaching background in the photos.  At the center of the table is a long raw-hide rope or moose similar to what
mahouts used in the previous centuries to catch elephants.

Elephants and Thailand go back a long way and elephants are revered as noble creatures in this country.

It’s hard to grasp that idea tho’ unless you’re Thai and have read about elephants in your history books and and folktales all your life.
You read about elephant warriors going to war with kings on their backs, and so on.

For Thai people a ‘domesticated’ elephant is a normal thing, much like a dog or a horse is domesticated in the west.  Their word for
elephants in captivity (as opposed to elephants in the wild) roughly translated is “home elephant.” Wild elephants are “jungle elephants.”

But in the last century, elephants have also become beasts of burden and have worked for miners and loggers, destroying their own forest homes.  When they lost their “jobs” (when the trees were finished and the mines were closed), they stopped being useful and ended up begging in the streets.  More recently they’ve become spectacles for tourists, performing tricks much like in circuses in the west.

The backgrounds of the elephants in the Chang(e) Caravan aren’t any different.  They are elephants in captivity, most likely poached when they were younger, but (sadly) can no longer survive in the wild.
The best thing that happened to them is that TERF (Thai Elephant Research and Conservation Fund) has taken them in as part of an
educational campaign to help conserve the few remaining elephants in the wild.

But the best thing that _should have_ happened to them was they should not have been captured at all.

Poaching is already illegal in Thailand but it continues to happen. There are only two to three thousand wild elephants left in the
country.  Elephants in captivity number at around 200.

At the same time, there are only around 65 mahouts left in the country, and only twenty of them are mahout elders.

It won’t be possible to release elephants in captivity back in the wild.  But protecting the remaining elephants in the wild might mean
that the tradition of keeping elephants would have to be discouraged.

And while we’re at it: protecting the remaining elephants also means protecting their forest home.

Protecting their forest home means protecting the climate.

Protecting the climate means protecting our world for future generations.

which is after all why we’re here on an elephant caravan, walking 200 kilometers to try to change the world🙂

Lea Guerrero

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