AYUTTHAYA, Thailand – Dozens of elephants, dressed in shining red and gold, were treated to an “all-you-can-eat” buffet Tuesday to celebrate National Elephant Day at a camp in Ayutthaya, Thailand.
The pachyderms and their trainers, known as mahouts, were also blessed by Buddhist monks, who sprinkled them with holy water as part of a religious ceremony. There was also a merit making ceremony for ungulates who have died.
Around 500 visitors made up of local villagers and school students then lined up to feed fresh fruits and vegetables to the animals, most of which were born in captivity at the camp, an epa photographer reported.
The playful nature of the annual celebration known as Chang Thai Day belies the reason it is held: the wild elephant population in the Southeast Asian country plummeted during the 20th century, and events such as this are one of the ways conservationists try to raise awareness of the plight of pachyderms in captivity and those being exploited for domestic use.
Around 100 years ago, over 300,000 elephants roamed Thailand’s forests, according to estimates by EleAid.
Elephant camps countrywide hold similar ritual events to usher in good luck for the pachyderms.
The day has been celebrated annually since being established by the government in 1998 to recognize the national animal, though wildlife advocates say the creatures deserve more protection and respect than they receive.
“These gentle giants, while revered in the country, are not free from abuse,” according to the nonprofit Save Elephant Foundation.
The NGO runs programs to rescue and rehabilitate elephants from the tourist and illegal logging industries, which the NGO says use inhumane training practices, including torturing baby elephants, to create obedience in naturally wild creatures.
Currently, there are only up to 3,000 wild elephants left in Thailand, while camps host an estimated 4,000 of the domesticated ungulates, according to Elephant Conservation Thailand.