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Music Could Lead to Long-Term Survival of Elephants in Thailand - 2002-08-16

Phong is one of Thailand's exceptional young musicians. At the age of four he plays the renat, a xylophone-like Thai instrument. A remarkable achievement, especially considering Phong is an elephant, living at a conservation center near the northern Thai town of Lampang. There, an elephant orchestra is busy recording its second compact disk.

The Elephonic Rhapsodies are the latest weapon in the fight to protect the elephants of Thailand. A century ago more than 100,000 elephants worked in the timber industry or roamed the forests. Today, there are just 2,500 in captivity and even fewer in the wild.

Richard Lair, an American conservationist established this heavyweight orchestra two years ago at the remote center he runs in northern Thailand. He thinks the music the animals create could help their long-term survival as tourist attractions.

"There're many purposes behind this. One is to make beautiful, interesting music, but why, here and now is the fact that elephants in Thailand are in great trouble. There's no longer a traditional employment, particularly logging, so the only legal work available now is basically in tourism. So we're constantly trying to find new things that are non-abusive to the elephants but that can entertain people and make money to meet our payroll," Mr. Lair said.

The elephants practice every day, playing a variety of specially built wind and percussion instruments under the guidance of musical directors and their keepers, or mahouts. The handlers encourage their charges to start playing, and then just let them bang away as they like.

Jan is 50 and has spent most of his life working with these giant mammals. He thinks the music makes them happy.

He says the elephants have a great time here. They enjoy it. The mahouts do too. He adds that everyone wants to preserve what's going on here.

Visitors to the center say the elephants are enthusiastic musicians, who seem pleased to have audiences. And the handlers say, unlike some human rock stars, the 11 band members have never thrown tantrums.

The conservation center is a former government logging camp and is now a popular tourism destination. For many foreign visitors, this orchestra is a bewildering experience.

"Yeah, it was several different elephants playing various instruments orchestrated by two gentlemen. It was very good, very good. It was totally bizarre, yeah. It was probably the maddest things I've ever seen," one British backpacker said.

This American tourist enjoys watching her fellow musicians play.

"It's so cute. Because back home I know how to play some of these instruments, well, something like that, so it's really cute to see the elephants playing them. It seems like they were having a lot of fun, just playing their hearts out," an American tourist said.

Of course, there are always critics.

"They were all banging away. It's probably the worst music I've ever heard but it was done by elephants so it was really lovely," a British backpacker said.

All orchestras need a conductor. Dave Soldier, a neuroscientist, has flown in from New York to take part in this musical project. He thinks the sounds the elephants make are a window into their souls.

"When you do something like listen to them play music especially if they're essentially writing their own music, they're improvising or composing their own music with a lot of help from us but we just say start and stop, the rest of it is pretty much up to them. So when you hear the elephant music you're hearing what they mean to make," he said.

The music directors plan to combine man-made sounds with the elephants' songs to create dance versions of the new tracks, along with country and western versions. The first CD sold 5,000 copies. While the project does not aim for platinum record sales, the organizers hope that selling more CDs will highlight the uncertain future these creatures face across Southeast Asia.