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The role of private organizations in elephant conservation - Soraida Salwala


A number of private organizations have been founded with the objective of helping to conserve Thai elephants. Some of these organizations are operated in the form of registered charities, others are not. In any case, each NGO has its own capabilities and expertise, and its own specific goals. Unfortunately, these organizations rarely exchange ideas, share successful strategies and solutions to common problems, or engage in joint actions. If collaboration among the NGOs were to be strengthened it is highly likely that elephant welfare would be significantly improved.

Problems of Thai elephants

The problems of Thai elephants (and their mahouts) can be understood in terms of the elephants' work situations. We an identify four groups of elephants:

1) Working elephants

2) Elephants in tourism

3) Roaming elephants

4) Zoo and domesticated elephants.

Specific problems associated with each group are identified below.

Working elephants

Approximately 1 500 elephants are classified in this group. Although the government banned logging in 1989, some mahouts are still employed illegally and use their elephants to haul logs in the forest. Some elephants are abused by overwork. Some are fed addictive drugs to make them work harder and to speed up their work. Some are injured while working. Some are taken to work in neighbouring countries because of the decrease of forest land in Thailand. If the animals become sick, no proper treatment and care are provided. The services of professional veterinarians are never used.

In October 1994, in Lampang's Hang Chat district, Friends of the Asian Elephant (FAE) founded its first elephant hospital, which provides shelter for sick elephants. The hospital staff practice veterinary medicine and surgery not only in the surrounding regions, but also in the upper northern villages.


Some private organizations such as Friends of the Asian Elephant face certain restrictions in dealing with the elephant situation such as a lack of budget and personnel. Difficulty in commuting from one place to another is another limitation, especially in short time frames.


1) A careful selection of working elephants for retraining in tourism is required. However, some working elephants cannot be trained to entertain tourists.

2) Some working elephants should be trained for boundary patrol duty in national parks and other wildlife conservation reserves. At present, there are 100 national parks in the country. If four elephants are assigned to patrol in each park, 400 will be utilized.

Elephants in the tourism business

There are approximately 700 elephants in this group. Most are working in the tourism industry transporting tourists to view forests and wilderness areas, or employed in elephant shows.


Some elephant camps provide low-standard services such as inadequate nutrition, unclean conditions, and insufficient water. Some mahouts' wages are too low or are even withheld and contracts are not respected.


1) Standardize the commercial relationships between the business owners and the elephant mahouts. The operation should bring fair benefits to all parties involved.

2) Conduct a general training programme for elephant caretakers and mahouts and formulate some procedures for elephant selection.

Roaming elephants

This group comprises 300 elephants that mostly come from the Northeast of Thailand. FAE has discerned some special problems of rural areas and thus has put efforts into alleviating both short and long-term problems since 1994.

For the short term: The four corners of the city are equipped with clean water and forested surroundings in order to enhance the well-being of the elephants and their mahouts. Interested, sympathetic tourists and people from the general public are able to visit elephants at the centre nearest them.

For the long term: FAE has been supporting legal reform pertaining to elephants. It encourages other non-profit organizations to participate in programmes offering mahouts alternative careers. This would help them avoid leaving their hometown for long periods of time and their elephants can have a better quality of life.

Some other specific proposals launched through the media since 1993 and presented at the seminar Surin Elephants: Crisis and Survival (1996) can be listed as follows:

1) Establish a permanent elephant centre at Baan Taklang, Tumbon Krapoe, Amphur Thatoom district, Surin province. Interested groups can view elephants' habitat and their way of life throughout the year, instead of only during the two days of the annual Surin Elephant Festival (the third week of November), the traditional practice up to now.

2) Designate land surrounding elephant villages as public common areas for raising elephants.

3) Reserve unpolluted water sources passing through villages for villagers and their elephants.

4) Maintain, with the support of the government, good roads to the villages.

5) Seek funds for medicine and food to help the mahouts.

6) Assist in vocational training to supplement the mahouts' incomes such as through cropping or fabric weaving.

7) Promote the elephant villages as historical villages of the Gui people in order to preserve their culture and traditions. Gui people introduced Thais to their training methods for wild elephants, so they could be employed in war, logging, transportation, and so forth. The Tourism Authority of Thailand is urged to assist in the public relations aspects.

Finally, the problem of roaming elephants coming into Bangkok streets is the result of various complex, multilateral difficulties that have not yet been overcome. Broad collaboration from diverse organizations is therefore essential.

Zoo elephants and domesticated elephants

Approximately 100 elephants are categorized in this group. Some have been kept chained for long periods of time, years in some cases. They struggle against their confinement, and suffer constant high levels of stress. However, some are fortunate to be well taken care of.

Conclusions and recommendations

From the above, it can be seen that the elephants in each of the categories need different kinds of help, though any assistance is difficult to provide. For instance, the ultimate solution to alleviating the problems of working elephants is the creation of more jobs in logging; this is likely an impossible task though, given the Thai logging ban and the continuing deforestation of Thailand's neighbouring countries.

Because private organizations have contributed a great deal to the welfare of the country's elephants, the concerned government agencies should give them greater recognition. The government should neither devalue nor underestimate the contributions of private groups working to protect elephants. Private organizations have been responsible for the discovery of a number of facts critical to the elephants' welfare. Consequently, full support from the government is requested in the effort to enhance the elephants' conservation.

The following actions to enhance the ability of private conservation organizations are proposed:

1) All private organizations working for elephants should be exempted from taxes.

2) Field staff for private organizations should be allowed to carry tranquillizer guns in order to control elephants in musth.

3) Some regulations should be modified, such as: all baby elephants should be registered when they reach a certain age. The head of the village must be informed of the birth in order to avoid elephant smuggling.

4) In order to reduce the slaughter of elephants, especially for ivory sales, elephants should be reclassified as an endangered animal.

5) The export of elephants in the form of national gifts should be stopped.

6) The government should allocate funds to the private organizations to carry out their elephant conservation mission.

7) Law enforcement against people who destroy elephant habitat should be pursued aggressively.

8) More regular and frequent collaboration among public and private organizations should be conducted.

Friends of the Asian Elephant continues to work closely with the elephants at all times and hopes that all organizations who work for elephants can work jointly without bias or friction. If this happens, the elephants' welfare will be more assured.

Question and answer session

Q1: Are you working towards controlling reproduction of captive elephants?

A1: No.

One participant remarked that the priority should be on habitat conservation.

Q2: Mr Bambang from Indonesia said that his institution was interested in sending someone to observe the mobile clinics that treat elephants, he asked if this would this be possible?

A2: You should ask Dr Parnthep directly as he is responsible for this.

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