Elephants are are a national symbol of Thailand, but lately these beloved animals have been generating some negative press. In the past few weeks, there have been numerous reports of wild elephants running amok in national parks, attacking cars and shops. In recent months there were also a couple cases of domesticated elephants turning on their mahouts. In one such incident, a large bull elephant trampled its handler to death and then ran off into the jungle with a couple of terrified tourists perched on his back throughout the ordeal. While the latest attacks involve a hormonally charged male jumbo in Khao Yai National Park humping a Mercedes Benz until it’s nothing but scrap metal. Luckily no people were hurt this time around—the same could not be said for these cars:
Khao Yai is Thailand’s largest national park, but it is also just a couple hours drive from Bangkok. This pretty much guarantees that it gets a steady stream of urban dwellers driving though on the weekends with absolutely no idea how to handle themselves around wild animals, especially giant raging pachyderms. The park gives out instructions on what to do if you encounter elephants on the road, but it appears not many people follow the advice.
Here’s what to do if you come across an elephant while driving through a national park according to wildlife expert Pattarapol Manee-on:
- Stop at least 30 meters away from any elephant you spot on the roadway. If the elephant moves in your direction, put your car in reverse and drive back from the direction you came until the elephant clears off the road on its own.
- Don’t blow your horn. It might just make the elephant angry. Remember their ears are more sensitive to sound than human ears. They can hear in a much greater range.
- Don’t use any flash photography around elephants as it could frighten them.
- Don’t turn off your engine. Keep your car running so that you can turn back quickly if you need to.
- If driving at night always keep the headlights on so you can see what the elephant is doing in front of you, but don’t flash your lights as this could startle the beasts.
Modern society has mostly been conditioned to think of elephants as cute, friendly creatures so it’s easy to forget how dangerous they can be. There’s a reason that elephants were the tanks of ancient warfare. They’re powerful and potentially deadly. A quick search on YouTube will turn up some truly horrific scenes of elephant attacks caught on video.
Thailand isn’t alone, of course. Asian elephants regularly go on the attack in a number of surrounding countries including Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. But by far the greatest number of wild elephant attacks occur in India, where up to 300 people are killed by elephants each year. Sometimes a herd of elephants emerges from the forest, gets rowdy, and goes on a rampage—leveling an entire village to the ground. At other times, a single hungry elephant can make short work of a farmer’s entire crop.
Elephants have been a hazard of Indian village life for centuries. In fact, there is a famous episode in the life of the Buddha in which he calms down a crazed bull elephant named Nalagiri. According to the legend, the monk Devadatta was jealous of the Enlightened One and wanted to put him out of the picture so that he could more easily surround himself with a large circle of disciples and devotees. Devadatta arranged for the mahouts of the notoriously aggressive bull elephant Nalagiri to feed it alcohol and set the beast loose in the middle of the path that the Buddha was to take on his morning alms round. While everyone else fled in terror, the Blessed One raised a hand to the raging elephant while extending a mind of loving kindness. Miraculously, Nalagiri calmed down and bowed down before the Buddha.
After seeing some of the footage of real elephant attacks, the story of the Buddha and Nalagiri seems remarkable. In order to approach such an animal with calm intent, one would have to be completely free of fear. Elephants are the strongest land animals on earth. Anytime somebody asks me “as a vegetarian, how do you get enough protein in your diet?” I remind them that elephants are pretty darn strong and I’ve never seen them eating any steaks.