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Part II: Country studies

Street wandering elephants in Bangkok

An elephant grazing at an elephant camp in an open grassland area outside Bangkok

An elephant with a mahout and two food vendors at a night spot in Bangkok

A study of street wandering elephants in Bangkok and the socio-economic life of their mahouts - Viroj Pimmanrojnagool and Sawai Wanghongsa

Historical background

Historically, the relationship between Thai people and elephants can be traced back to the Sukhothai period, 700 years ago. The first known use of elephants, in the history of Siam, was during the war between King Khunsri Inthradhit of Sukhothai and King Samchon of Chod when both kings battled on elephant back. Moreover, a stone inscription from King Ramkamhaeng's reign says"...whoever would like to trade elephants can do so and whoever would like to trade horses can do so...” This implies not only that people were allowed to capture wild elephants, but also they had knowledge and experience in keeping and using elephants. Unfortunately, the number of domesticated or wild elephants was not recorded during that time.

The first ever mention of the number of domesticated elephants in Siam was in King Narai's reign, when Louis XIV's envoy to Siam wrote that there were approximately 20 000 domesticated elephants in the Kingdom. These animals were used in warfare and were honoured with noble titles along with the soldiers after a victory of the King's forces. Indeed, the outcomes of ancient wars were not only determined by the size of an army but also by the number of elephants in its service. Victory was likely to be the reward of the side with the most and the largest elephants. Elephants were also used for transportation. King Narai himself enjoyed capturing wild elephants especially in Lopburi province. It can be estimated from the figure of 20 000 domesticated elephants that there would be approximately 200 000 elephants living in the jungles of Siam during King Narai's reign.

In former times the people of Asia used elephants in everyday life. Indeed, it is said that the lives of elephants and people were inseparable. However, the colonisation of many Asian countries by the Western powers brought several changes in the way of life of the Asian people. The first was the introduction of firearms. The more powerful and long-range destructive capability of Western firearms replaced the traditional weapons of swords, spears and the like and thus elephants were no longer used in the frontline of the battlefield. Instead, they supported the war effort in other ways, mainly carrying big guns and supplies. The last use of elephants in the frontline in Thailand (formerly called Siam) was in the war between Siam and Viet Nam over Cambodian suzerainty during the reign of King Rama III.

The new era of elephant use can be illustrated by a picture of elephants with loads of cannon that was published at the turn of the twentieth century. Though huge, elephants are not able to carry very heavy weights on their back (300 kg at the most), but they are able to pull half of their weight, or 1 000-2 000 kg. People realized, therefore, that elephants would be very good in the logging industry. In Chiang Mai alone, it was recorded that there were nearly 20 000 elephants working in the logging industry during the reign of the Great King Rama V. He was named the King of red and white elephants by Westerners, probably because during his reign there was a huge demand for working elephants. Several of the elephants captured were the so-called ‘white elephants' (not the albino morph) that legally belong to the King. The greater the number of wild elephants captured, the greater the number of white elephants there was among them and the greater the number owned by the palace. In fact, in the reign of King Rama V, there were 19 white elephants in his palace. Thai Buddhists generally believe that white elephants symbolize the power of the King.

Siam was one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to have laws concerning elephants, especially white ones. As elephants were used in warfare, royal decrees concerning the capture of elephants were gazetted. The first law was gazetted in the reign of King Narai who was said to be very fond of elephant hunting. As they symbolized the King's power, people were encouraged to capture elephants in the hope that white ones would be discovered. Anyone who hurt or wounded white elephants received the death penalty, as did his family. Elephants played an important role in the culture and traditions of the Siamese and they are frequently mentioned in the literature of the country. A classic book written by Rajanubkap tells the story of the ways in which people captured and trained elephants, the characteristics of white elephants and the uses of elephants in former times. Even now, they still have an important place in the hearts and minds of Thai people in all classes of society.

Internationally, elephants are listed in Appendix I of CITES. Nationally, it is legally protected by the Wildlife Reservation and Protection Act 1992. Since the 1970s no licence has been issued for capturing wild elephants. However, habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation have caused elephant numbers to decline in every part of the country. Once roaming all over the country, they are now found in just eight forest complexes, comprising a population of 2 250 individuals or only 1 percent of the elephant population estimated in King Narai's reign. The future of these animals is at least secure in the short term as they are in protected areas, although poaching does still occur. Nevertheless, there are serious problems. First, not a single forest complex contains a large enough number of elephants to sustain a viable population.[1] Second, fragmented populations tend to inbreed, and genetic erosion is unavoidable. Without proper management, these populations will die out.

The number of domesticated elephants was estimated at 2 706 individuals in the late 1980s. Once used in the logging industry, almost all of these animals are now without work, particularly since 1989 when the Thai Government suspended all logging concessions in the country, except those working in illegal logging operations and some in circus-like shows. The struggle to earn a living causes the mahouts to bring their elephants to the big cities like Korat, Chiang Mai and Bangkok, or to tourist attractions, hoping to find a better way of life for both the elephants and themselves. Several of these elephants have been accidentally killed or wounded, while others have been shot after running amok. In short, the lot of domesticated elephants is not a happy one and nobody pays much attention to them.

Activities being carried out by mahouts and their elephants

The survey conducted between 28 August and 17 October 2000 revealed that there were 41 elephants wandering in various parts of Bangkok compared with 50 animals reported elsewhere. They lived in a group of up to eight animals with three keepers each (whether owner-mahout or hired mahouts, hereafter called keepers). Considering the elephant's walking speed of 4 km an hour and food requirements of 200 kg a day, wandering elephants in Bangkok are only able to camp around the outskirts of the city. Scrub and undeveloped lands in Minburi, Bangkapi, Don Muang, Rangsit, and Suwinthawong are frequently occupied by elephants and their keepers. Six working hours give a maximum of no more than 12 km from camp sites for animals to walk back and forth or in a circle. Sometimes because of the scarcity of animal food at or near the campsite, elephants are moved to a different site. Their daily pattern of activity is described below.

Night-time activity:

Nightly activities commenced between 17.00 and 18.00 hours and were terminated by 24.00 and 01.00 hours. Selling food to feed their elephants was the main activity of the keepers during the night-time. Restaurants and food shops (hereafter shops) along the main roads were frequently visited. Lingering in front of the shops was a tactic used to persuade people to buy food to feed the elephants. Data collected in September 2000 indicated that 52.9 percent of the shops visited had elephant-food buyers, which was not significantly different from the percentage of shops visited without buyers (Chi-square test for homogeneity with Yate's correction factor, c2 = 0.48, 2df, p <0.05). Up to 11 packs of food might be bought but most buyers bought only one pack of food, whereas 20.3 percent and 16.2 percent bought two and three packs respectively. Four to 11 packs of food were only very occasionally bought (Chi-square test for homogeneity c2 =116.48, 7df, p <0.05).

A pack of food, consisting of either bananas, pineapples, string beans, cucumbers or water melon weighing less than 0.5 kg cost 20 baht. On average, every one hour 9.53 packs of food were sold, which is equivalent to 190 baht. Elephants wandered 5-7 hours a night; thus each night one elephant could earn 950-1140 baht. The amount of food elephants consumed was estimated to be not more than 25 kg. This is equivalent to only about 13 percent of an elephant's daily food requirements.

Shops visited between 21.00 and 24.00 hours sold more food than shops visited between 18.00 and 21.00 hours. (Chi-square test for association with Yate's correction factor, c2 = 26.42 1df, p <0.05).

Of the total amount of elephant food sold, passers-by bought significantly less than shop customers (Chi-square test for homogeneity with Yate's correction factor, c2 = 90.32, 1df, p <0.05).

No rings made of elephant hairs were found being sold during the observations. But on one occasion the keepers allowed people to pass underneath their elephant's belly, as this is believed to bring good luck.

To summarize, money generated by all 41 elephants wandering in Bangkok amounted to 39 000 to 47 000 baht a day or 14-17 million baht a year. Almost all of the money came from shop customers' pockets. The most profitable time was between 21.00 and 24.00 hours. Food sold during the night accounted for approximately 13 percent of an elephant's daily food requirement.

Daytime activity:

Because elephants consume only a fraction of their daily requirement during the night-time, the daytime is a vital period for them. Data from interviews and observations of daytime activity showed that both elephants and their keepers did not work during the day. Elephants were chained and allowed to feed themselves, and were occasionally provided with some supplementary food. One keeper usually rested while the other bought elephant food and prepared for the touring at night.

Reasons for bringing elephants to big cities

Six elephant keepers (four from Buriram and two from Surin province) were interviewed in Bangkok. The main reason for bringing their elephants to Bangkok was that sufficient elephant foodstuff was not available in the keepers' hometowns. The rangelands in the village have been cleared to make way for agriculture and plantations, Eucalyptus in particular, which is not elephant food. Also, insufficient income in their hometown was the second reason for bringing the elephants to the city. They spent four to five months a year in Bangkok. However, they visited not only Bangkok but also other big or tourist cities such as Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen, etc., and it is estimated that a third of domesticated elephants are involved in such businesses.

Observations in Surin and Buriram in the middle of October showed that, like cattle in Africa, elephants once symbolized the wealth and position of their owners. But now, many elephant owners appear to have sold their beasts as indicated by the fact that the pens below their houses are being used to confine cattle instead of elephants as once used to be the case.

More females than male elephants were found in Bangkok. Most elephants are adult cows and, according to the keepers, pregnant. It is interesting to note that more female elephants were brought to Bangkok probably because it is believed that people take more pity on females than on males, particularly pregnant females. These usually have the word"pregnant” in Thai printed on their bodies to prompt people to buy food to feed them. Another reason is that female elephants are less aggressive than males. It is also likely that male elephants will still be engaged in heavy work (perhaps illegally) in the provinces.

Problems associated with bringing elephants to big cities

The problems experienced by the keepers who bring the elephants to Bangkok, according to the interviews, were being arrested and fined, and being forced to move camp site by landlords and being unable to find sufficient food for the elephants.

The keepers revealed that bringing elephants to Bangkok needs a large sum of money. The hired trucks that are used to transport the elephants to Bangkok cost 5 000-6 000 baht a time. One elephant is usually accompanied by two to three persons. For the security of their lives and property, they usually camp together in the suburbs of Bangkok. Some campsites frequently accommodate one to eight elephants and up to 30 keepers.

Public opinions concerning mahouts and elephants on the streets

Several groups of people were interviewed between September and November for their opinions on street-wandering elephants.

Food shop owners:

Twenty-one food shop owners were interviewed between October and November 2000. Thirteen of those interviewed (61.9%) were between 20-40 years old and 20 (95.2%) had a primary, secondary or vocational education. While eight (38.1%) of them willingly spent money on food for wandering elephants out of pity, 13 shop owners (61.9%) refused to do so, believing that such activities should be stopped. Seven out of those 13 strictly refused to buy food for elephants. One out of those 13 was afraid of elephants and the rest (12) said it was unnecessary to bring elephants to the big cities. Nine of the shop owners (42.9%) thought that elephants and keepers adversely affected their business as they were dirty, bothered customers and damaged property.

However, most of those interviewed realized that it was the keepers, not the elephants, that were the problem. They reasoned that it was the fact that the keepers were unemployed in their hometowns that forced them to bring elephants to Bangkok. To solve such problems, they thought keepers should be helped to find work in their home provinces.


Ninety-four passers-by from all sections of society and aged mostly between 20-40 years were interviewed. Sixty-one of the passers-by (64.9%) felt pity on the elephants walking in the streets of Bangkok. Twenty-seven (28.7%) strongly objected to the presence of elephants on the streets. Another six (6.4%) had no opinion. Of the 40 of passers-by (42.6%) that had previously spent money on elephants, 34 (85.0%) spent money on food, three (7.5%) spent money to pass underneath an elephant's belly to bring good luck, and two (5.0%) spent money to visit an elephant show. Of the 54 (57.4%) who had never spent money on the elephants, 31 (57.4%) strongly objected to the activities of the elephants and their keepers.

When asked whether there were any adverse impacts on their normal life, 62 (66.0%) said there were no adverse impacts. The rest (32 or 34.0%) said there were adverse impacts such as: blocking the traffic (14 or 43.8%); making them feel sad (7 or 21.9%); and causing the roads to be dirty (6 or 18.8%).

Some passers-by recommended that keepers should take the elephants back to their hometowns and find employment there. Others proposed that there should be campsites around the outskirts of Bangkok and tourism activities should be encouraged at these sites. A few passers-by thought the laws should be more strictly enforced.


Five junior Bangkok Metropolitan Government officials (four policemen and one street cleaner) were interviewed. All of them objected to the presence of elephants because they caused traffic problems and were dirty. They stated that they had never spent any money on food for the elephants. They proposed that the elephants should be sent back to their hometowns.

Laws related to elephants

Elephants and mahouts in Bangkok are subjected to the following laws.

Draught Animals Act 1941 (B.E. 2484):

This Act regards elephants as draught animals like cattle, horses, and as personal property. To control their movement and possession, owners of elephants aged eight years old should register them at the District Office of the Local Administration Department, in which the elephant's ID was issued. If an elephant travels outside the district where the elephant is registered, owners should report to the authorities in the destination district within 30 days after arrival, unless the elephant is leased, loaned or the move is temporary. Competent officials are empowered to inspect an elephant and its ID. Unregistered elephants or elephants not conforming to the ID must be confiscated and it is the elephants' owner who must prove right of ownership.

Cleanliness and Orderliness of the Country Act 1992 (B.E. 2535):

This Act empowers the Bangkok governor to prohibit the following activities: (1) bringing elephants to streets or areas declared as restricted areas; (2) bringing elephants to government lands or state enterprise lands with planted trees or grasses with a sign saying no draught animals allowed to trespass. The owners of elephants that defecate on the street should collect the droppings and keep the street clean.

Public Health Act 1992 (B.E. 2535):

According to this Act the Bangkok governor is empowered to set aside areas where wandering animals are prohibited, for the sake of the people's living condition and for the prevention of animal-transmitted diseases. In fact, all streets and roads are prohibited to elephants.

Animal's Plague Act 1956 (B.E. 2499):

This law requires elephants moving outside the province to first obtain official written permission. The law also prohibits the trade of live elephants and their carcasses without permission.

Highways Act 1992 (B.E. 2535):

No animals are allowed to wander on roadways, pavements or road shoulders unless following the regulations issued by the Department of Highways. Bringing animals to restricted roads is a violation of the law. However, no specific regulations have been proclaimed.

Land Traffic Act 1979 (B.E. 2522):

Prohibition against obstructing pavements or pedestrian ways is the main focus of this law. No animals are allowed to wander on roadways in such a way that prevents or obstructs public movement.

Penal Code, as amended 1984 (B.E. 2527):

The law prohibits cruelty to animals, improper use of animals, or use of ill animals.

Wild Elephant Protection Act 1921 (B.E. 2464):

The capture of wild elephants is not allowed without official permission. The law prohibits the killing of wild elephants.

Wild Animals Preservation and Protection Act 1992 (B.E. 2535):

Wild elephants are classified as protected animals. The law prohibits the capture of wild elephants except for scientific research. The trade and possession of wild elephants are controlled.

Although there are already nine laws related to the prevention of elephants walking in Bangkok, many elephants can still be found walking there. Lack of enforcement and co-operation are the main reasons for this situation. Several government agencies have been empowered to tackle the problems of elephants and mahouts in Bangkok. If they seriously carried out their responsibilities, elephants would no longer be found in Bangkok. However, a number of points must be taken into account when considering the problem. Physically, elephants are huge animals and it is difficult for strangers to control them. Confiscation and seizure may bring a very serious problem to government officials, as elephants require a large space and a huge amount of food. Elephants can at times act with great ferocity and have been known to cause the death of a caretaker or spectator. This may cause competent officials to be reluctant to implement the relevant laws.

Symbolically, at least among Thai Buddhists, elephants represent angels and Thai people feel a close relationship with them. Thai people are aware that elephants helped a former king to secure the country's independence. All Thai children above three years old know something about elephants. Moreover, elephants are one of the ten animals in the Buddhist scriptures that humans are not allowed to eat. Implementation of strong and concrete measures to eradicate elephants from Bangkok may receive strong objections from the Thai public. And, anyway, driving elephants out of Bangkok without first finding alternative work for them is not a proper solution to the elephant problem.

The situations of mahouts and elephants after the ban on their activities in Bangkok

Although there are strong laws and regulations controlling the movement of elephants and prohibiting their movement in cities, violations by elephants and their keepers are common. In March 2000, the Zoological Organization of Thailand claimed that 38 elephants had been seen in Bangkok alone; 33 were females and five were males. Survey data collected in October and November 2000 gave the figure of 41 elephants in Bangkok. Before the ban on bringing elephants to Bangkok, 50 elephants could be expected. Thus, the number of elephants in Bangkok has only slightly declined.

Recommendations to improve the status of mahouts and elephants

Both domesticated elephants and their mahouts deserve a proper management response. The knowledge of mahouts about capturing, controlling and using elephants in a variety of tasks is gradually eroding. It is only the owner-mahouts who intuitively understand the nature of elephants. To some extent, these people do not abuse, overwork or act cruelly towards their animals. Ironically, the conservation and management of domesticated elephants require the conservation and management of their owner-mahouts. It has to be acknowledged that sometimes mahouts can earn quite high incomes by bringing their elephants to big cities like Bangkok and therefore owner-mahouts possessing healthy and docile female elephants are unlikely to be willing to undertake less remunerative types of employment. Clearly, alternative jobs must ensure the economic security and survival of both elephants and mahouts. Another important point to keep in mind when introducing management measures to control domesticated elephants is that 2 706 elephants require at least 540 tonnes of food each day. And the more the animals are brought together in a single camp, the more difficult it is to find sufficient food for them. To tackle the problem of wandering elephants in the long term, the following solutions are recommended:

1. The existing laws should be effectively enforced. No elephants should be permitted to travel the streets or roads in Bangkok, as this is a clear violation of the law. Insufficient food in their home provinces is not an acceptable reason for bringing elephants to Bangkok - as stated earlier, elephants obtain only 13 percent of their food requirement from walking along the streets. The elephant keepers must find the remainder of the food requirement in a nearby campsite, which is difficult, perhaps impossible, in the city of Bangkok. It should be noted that at least seven tonnes of food must be gathered daily to feed 41 elephants. This figure should be publicized to Bangkokians to reduce the public antipathy towards taking serious measures to return the elephants to the provinces. The co-operation of all agencies is required and therefore competent officials should be brought together to sit and talk about the problem of elephants in Bangkok and to find the correct way to implement the elephant-related laws. Management measures should be implemented simultaneously by all responsible agencies. A"Love elephants, Don't feed elephants” campaign should be established and widely publicized.

2. A concrete and long-term management measure should be established to stop the illegal hunting of baby elephants and to block the smuggling of baby elephants as well. Based on available information on the birth rate of less than 1 percent a year, it is estimated that no more than 30 elephants are born every year. The others must be assumed to be illegal whether from hunting or smuggling. Purported owners are required to prove their right to ownership. Regulations relating to the elephant registration process must be amended. Baby elephants should be registered before weaning rather than at eight years old as required by the existing law. It is the duty of a competent official to facilitate the registration process by visiting the campsite where the elephant is located within two weeks after being informed. The registration involves proving that all baby elephants are the offspring of registered female elephants. Baby elephants born from unregistered elephants cannot be registered. In case of difficulties in visually proving the mother-offspring relationships, molecular biology technology should be used. An elephant's ID should be renewed every five years. The registered elephants should be required by law to be inspected before ID renewal. Microchip implantation coupled with DNA fingerprinting should replace the normal process of describing an elephant's physical appearance. So far 1 702 domesticated elephants have had microchips implanted. Under this scheme, it is expected that the number of domesticated elephants will stabilise or gradually decrease.

3. The Royal Forest Department (RFD) officers should be included among the competent officials under the Draught Animals Act 19 (B.E 2484) rather than include domesticated elephants in the Wild Animals Preservation and Protection Act B.E. 2535 that the RFD is responsible for implementing. RFD officers should have the legal right to manage domesticated elephants. Encouraging mahout-owners to work with the Royal Forest Department may reduce the number of unemployed elephants. Elephants may help forest rangers to patrol jungle terrain that is difficult to patrol by walking. These activities may ensure that the animals have sufficient food, water and shelter and that the owners have a regular income from the elephant's salary. However, the health of all elephants in the employ of the RFD must be regularly inspected.

4. Domesticated elephants should be reintroduced into protected areas that presently only have a small number of wild elephants. Small populations of wild elephants in some protected areas could thereby be genetically replenished. There have been several instances of successful elephant (re)introduction, where the animals have reproduced without human intervention. The most well known case is the introduction of elephants to Borneo where they multiplied rapidly and became a part of the Borneo ecosystem. The second instance is in the Andaman islands where the elephants were brought in to work by logging companies in the mid 19th century. After the logging operations were terminated, the animals were left behind. They reproduced freely and within two decades they had surprisingly dispersed to the nearby islands.

Some protected areas where the number of wild elephant has declined to less than ten, or where elephants have been extirpated, and could be reintroduced, include Ton-nga-chang Wildlife Sanctuary (WS), Lumnampai WS, Pumiang Putong WS, Maetuen WS, Sablungka WS, Doi Phachang WS, Puphan National Park (NP) and Huai Namdang NP. Healthy bulls and cows whose ages are between 30 and 40 years old are ideal for reintroduction.

Question and answer session

Q1: When was the ban on logging introduced by the Thai Government?

A1: In 1989.

Q2: You mentioned that many or most of the elephants brought to Bangkok are hired for this purpose. Do you know if there is a syndicate involved?

A2: The representative from the Thai Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals stated that his organization knows of one syndicate in Surin that has hired out about 100 young elephants. Sometimes, elephants are also bought by wealthy families as status symbols. The cost of a young elephant is about 150 000 baht and can be paid in instalments. Some of the wandering elephants have been brought to Bangkok to raise the money to pay the instalments.

Q3: What proportion of the elephants' earnings is used to purchase food for the elephants?

A3: Usually the keeper only buys food like bananas, pineapple, string beans and the like that will be sold to passers-by who wish to feed the elephants. The keepers don't buy food specifically for the elephants. Instead, they just let them graze on grass in the temporary camps. This means that the elephants do not get enough roughage and become obese.

Q4: You mentioned that sometimes the elephants are responsible for property damage. What kind of things do they damage?

A4: Cars and tables outside restaurants. Sometimes they cause injury to people.

Q5: I know that this is extremely difficult, but have you tried to introduce domesticated elephants into the wild?

A5: The Royal Forestry Department has not done this.

Dr Khyne U Mar from Myanmar stated that this had been done in Myanmar. She said it is helpful to distinguish between"soft release” (where the captive elephant is released back into its old territory) and"hard release” (where the elephant is released into unfamiliar territory). Hard release is very, very difficult, perhaps impossible. Third or fourth generation, free- ranging young domesticated elephants are the easiest to reintroduce into the wild.

Q6: Did your study look into alternative employment for street wandering elephants? Thailand has probably more protected areas than any other country in the region, but very few elephants are used in national parks, for example, for tourism purposes. I wonder if you investigated this.

A6: The study didn't specifically investigate this, but the Royal Forest Department is currently asking park chiefs to look into the possibility of using elephants to patrol the national parks and is entering into discussions with the mahouts to see how interested they are in this work.

[1] However, the most well-known and the largest forest complex in the country, Thung Yai - Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuaries in the western region, is said to contain a population of 605 individuals, which is the largest number of elephants in a single contiguous area of forest in the country and may be viable.

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