The Cultural Relationship Between Karen Mahouts and Elephants

A long-standing cultural relationship exists between Karen mahouts and elephants. Today we will tell you about their way of life!

The Karen people have one the longest historical relationships with elephants of any culture. Indigenous to the Thailand-Burma border region, Karen people originally immigrated to Thailand to flee persecution in Myanmar. Using their elephants as a means of transport to navigate difficult terrain, they settled in the mountains of Northern Thailand, particularly around Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son. Once in Thailand, the Karen people continued to use their elephants for labour, engaging in such practices as logging.

The close relationship between Karen people and elephants has resulted in a number of unique cultural practices and ceremonies, such as hand-fasting (elephant reception). This ceremony occurs annually, during the Summer. Since elephants are historically used for labour throughout the year, this is a period for the animals to return to their homes, eat well, and relax, as well as for owners to appreciate their elephants. After the conclusion of the ceremony, which usually coincides with the rainy season, the Karen people and their elephants return to their normal work schedules.

In recent years, the unique lifestyle and culture of the Karen people has resulted in increased interest from foreign tourists. This, combined with the rise in elephant tourism and a nationwide logging ban, has resulted in many Karen people transitioning from using their elephants for labour to entering the entertainment and tourism industries with their animals.
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The Matriarch Project