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Saving Thailand’s elephants with champagne and paddle boats

Thailand’s inaugural King’s Cup Elephant Boat Race and River Festival on the Chao Phraya was an elaborate affair – with very noble ambitions.

Saving Thailand’s elephants with champagne and paddle boats

(Photo: Bangkok River Festival)

The Thais sure love their water. They built their capital city, Bangkok, right along the edge of one of the world’s great waterways, the Chao Phraya. They dug up an intricate Venetian-like network of klongs, or canals, and constructed fabulous teak homes along them. Their navy is a source of pride and joy. For centuries, they’ve staged elaborate river festivals, and devoted an entire holiday, Songkran, to water. Even their markets float.

Is it any wonder, then, that one of Thailand’s marquee events this year was the inaugural King’s Cup Elephant Boat Race and River Festival​​​​​​​l?

Over the weekend of Mar 29 to 31, battalions of spectators braved the sweltering heat to descend on the banks of the Chao Phraya where a vast, white-tented show-ground had been set up next to the Anantara Riverside and the Avani+ Riverside hotels.

The Kings Cup opening celebrations. (Photo: Bangkok River Festival)

To much enthusiastic cheers – fuelled partly by drinks from a crate of sponsors that included Veuve Clicquot, Mekhong distilled spirit, Johnnie Walker Blue Label, and Chang beer – 12 teams from Thailand, China and the Philippines raced down a 200m stretch of the river in long paddle boats that were crowned at the bow with carved elephant heads, and at the stern with traditional Thai fish motifs.

The air thrummed with the amplified rapid heart-beat of drums which set the rhythm for the paddlers – though for all the long build-up to the starting line, each heat was over faster than you could say “One tom yum goong, please!”

After a series of elimination rounds, the winner was, appropriately, local favourite, the Royal Thai Navy Seals – a platoon of superbly conditioned athletes whose unacceptably chiselled bodies and muscled arms took precisely 46.68 seconds to churn down the 200m course.

One of the participating teams, the Institute of Physical Education. (Photo: Bangkok River Festival)

Meanwhile, under one of the ground’s tents, the Indoor Rowing Asia Cup Tournament was held with teams from nine countries – Bahrain, Chinese Taipei, India, Iraq, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand – rowing the equivalent of 2 km on stationary machines. The winner of the women’s title was Yi-ting Huang from Taipei, while India’s Parminder Singh was the men’s champion.

And as the setting sun gathered the light below the horizon, the stage was set, literally, for a zombie house side-show, vintage car auction, clowns, and a series of concerts by local celeb chanteuses like New & Jiew and Singto Numchok, while drinks flowed freely at the sponsor tents, and Benihana and The Spice Market dished out dinner.

Of course, in the midst of all the jolly festivities, it was almost too easy to overlook a more serious undertone to the event. For, as it turned out, the Festival was the culmination of the Anantara hotels’ week-long celebration of Thai National Elephant Day.

The rooftop of the Avani+ Riverside hotel. (Photo: Avani+ Riverside hotel)

The back story here is worth recounting. Looking for a way to help elephants, William Heinecke, the hotelier and founder of Minor – a vast conglomerate that includes the Anantara and Avani brands – found his pachyderm Ground Zero when he acquired the Anantara Golden Triangle in 2002. Starting small, he turned the surrounding forest and grassland over to four elephants, a herd that eventually grew to 25. As the numbers expanded, so did Heinecke’s ambitions.

For instance, proceeds of all ticket sales from this year’s King’s Cup Elephant Boat Race & River Festival (and subsequent editions) go to elephant-related projects throughout Thailand that are overseen by the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation – a Thai-registered non-profit that Heinecke set up in 2006 to help vulnerable elephants who, through abuse or circumstance, are unable to maintain an income for their upkeep, or for their mahouts and their families.

With the support of the Minor group hotels, John Roberts, the Foundation’s Director of Elephants & Conservation Activities says the Foundation “provides and promotes ethical work for elephants that are able to make a living, and a safe, healthy environment for those who cannot”.

(Photo: Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation)

Today, the Foundation works with the likes of Freeland Foundation in Thailand, Wildlife Alliance in Cambodia, USAID, Think Elephants International, and the Zoological Parks Organisation of Thailand which helps 300 elephants in a traditional mahout village in Surin.  

“There are about 10,000 elephants in captivity in South East Asia, with a similar number in the wild,” Roberts says. “We provide training and workshops, and we investigate and share best practices.”

The approach is holistic and non-confrontational. “We train mahouts in modern, elephant-friendly handling techniques. Our Thai-based wild elephant projects focus on helping manage the interface where elephants come out of what remains of their habitat and into farmers’ fields to ensure it is safe for humans and elephants alike. We hashtag it #SurvivingTogether.

(Photo: Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation)

“As a second approach we fund research into studying the behaviour of crop-raiding elephants – the more we know about how they think and see the world, the better we can provide for their needs inside protected areas.”

The Foundation’s remit reaches into Cambodia where it completely funds the protection of an 18,000ha elephant corridor in the Cardamom Mountains.

All of which might seem like a long way from the music, lights and family-friendly carousing on the Chao Phraya, but a big splashy Thai party sure is a great way to address the elephant in the room.

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Source: CNA/ds