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The role of NGOs in the management of domesticated elephants in Thailand - Parntep Ratanakorn


The problems of domesticated elephants in Thailand such as being hit by cars, being fed addictive drugs to make them work harder and longer, and infectious diseases and malnutrition have a great impact on Thai society. People are becoming more aware of the threats to elephant welfare and are asking the responsible government authorities to provide better protection and assistance to elephants and to help meet their basic needs. In Thailand, responsibility for domesticated elephants lies with the Ministry of Interior, which takes care of registration, and the Department of Livestock Development, which looks after elephant health care. Yet the problems persist because of the lack of trained personnel, equipment and funding. A number of NGOs dealing directly with elephant welfare have been established in order to address these problems and to improve the welfare of the country's elephants. NGO activities include providing grants, equipment and medical supplies to government authorities, arranging seminars and workshops to strengthen the capabilities of government personnel in the field of elephant health care and management, setting up veterinary mobile units to rescue and treat elephants throughout the country, raising public awareness of elephant welfare and conservation issues through various media, etc. However, most NGO activities are constrained by lack of funding and the fact that they have no legal authorization to carry out certain activities. Therefore, it is impossible to adequately address all the problems faced by domesticated elephants. Currently there is no national committee that could act as an umbrella organization to coordinate the work of both GOs and NGOs. Nevertheless, the situation of domesticated elephants in Thailand has improved to some extent and it is hoped that further improvements will be made in the near future.


Domesticated elephants in Thailand are now facing many threats such as unemployment, poor health conditions, and a lack of health care services, etc. Formerly, Thailand was renowned as a haven for elephants. Now, in most big cities, it is common to see exhausted and malnourished elephants wandering the streets with their mahouts begging for food and money. Some elephants are hit by cars or injured as a result of falling into open sewage drains. Many efforts to protect and assist the country's domesticated elephants have been initiated by NGOs, and GOs have followed suit. Most efforts to solve the problems of domesticated elephants have originated from the private sector. Some groups concerned with elephant welfare have been established in order to provide a direct service to elephants and their mahouts. These groups have generally made an effort to support the government authorities responsible for elephant welfare.

The management of domesticated elephants in Thailand is the responsibility of two government agencies, namely the Department of Livestock Development (DLD), Ministry of Agriculture and Co-operatives, which is responsible for the health care of domesticated elephant through their livestock veterinary service networks, and the Division of Registration (DOR), Ministry of Interior, which is responsible for the registration of domesticated elephants through their local offices.

The management of elephants in captivity by GOs has a long history in Thailand, but problems persist, including an ineffective registration system for domesticated elephants. Unfortunately, illegal licensing and registration can be performed easily because of the improper technique for permanent animal identification used by GOs. This usually involves identifying an individual elephant by natural markings such as scars on the ears and tail, the shape of the back, etc. These methods have been used for centuries and, unfortunately, they are still in use making effective registration impossible.

Domesticated elephants are not the top priority for the nation's policy makers and thus veterinary services for domesticated elephant provided through the DLD network have generally been, and remain, insufficient because DLD lacks sufficient funding and skilled personnel. Veterinary officers from DLD inevitably have to work within severe constraints.

The role of NGOs

The main role of NGOs is to assist GOs to improve the welfare of elephants and to solve their problems. NGOs have designed and implemented a wide variety of projects. Some of these are as follows:

1) Nationwide registration of domesticated elephants

The use of transponder injection as a permanent identification technique was introduced by the Asian Elephant Foundation of Thailand (AEFT) in 1996. Around 1 300 domesticated elephants are now registered in the AEFT database. This has stimulated DLD and the DOR to adopt a modern and more effective registration protocol. In the future, it is hoped to merge both the NGO database and the GO database to create a national domesticated elephant database.

2) Health problems and veterinary service

In the rural areas both routine health care and emergency treatment are conducted by a small number of veterinary extension services that take care of livestock and elephants. Most of DLD's veterinarians have no experience of elephant diseases or captive management, so few services are provided to sick elephants. In critical cases of poisoning and severe injuries from car accidents, elephants need immediate treatment, but none of the GOs consider themselves to be responsible in such cases. A"Mobile Veterinary Service Unit” was set up by various NGOs in order serve these needs as well as to undertake preventive medicine, regular health care and treatment, general emergency medicine, etc. With financial support from a number of international organizations, especially the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the mobile unit assists many domesticated elephants throughout Thailand. The DLD has now established an"Elephant Health Mobile Team” in Surin province, in the Northeast, which is the biggest hometown of domesticated elephants in Thailand. This team provides a service in Surin and it collaborates with the NGO unit that has now moved its base to another part of the country. We hope that the number of mobile units provided by the DLD will be substantially increased in the near future.

3) Technology transfer for the conservation and advanced health care for domesticated elephants

NGOs are able to transfer technology to the local DLD's veterinarians through various seminars and workshops, for example: a regional workshop on Asian elephant health care, which resulted in the establishment of"The Minimum Requirement for Health Status and Management of Asian Elephants in South East Asia”; a workshop on"Diagnostic Ultrasonography of Reproductive Tract in the Asian Elephant”; and a seminar on"Reproduction Biology of the Asian Elephant”, which resulted in a published proceeding titled"Assessment and Management of the Reproductive System in Asian Elephants”; etc. These activities have been carried out to strengthen the ability and understanding of the veterinarians who are in charge of the health care of elephants and the related services.

4) Raising of public awareness on"Elephant Welfare”

This has been a major focus of NGO efforts. A very successful campaign convinced the government to establish a new national day,"Thai Elephant Day”, on the 13 March of each year and this is now observed throughout almost every province in the country with appropriate activities. The purpose is to pay respect to the country's elephants and promote recognition of the important role this species plays in the Thai natural environment, religion, history and culture. Campaigns, elephant poster contests, seminars, workshops are also regularly conducted to raise public awareness of elephant welfare issues.

5) Fund raising

Since the economic crisis in 1997, the government's budget has been very severely constrained. Elephants and their mahouts have suffered from this crisis. NGOs have made efforts to raise funds to purchase food for both elephants and mahouts, to provide free medicines and health care services, to support government activities concerning elephant issues, etc.


NGOs have been actively engaged in a large number of efforts to improve the welfare of the country's elephants, as mentioned above. These activities are designed to support or supplement the activities of government agencies as we are well aware of their financial limitations. Moral and economic support has also been provided to the responsible government agencies to strengthen their capability and make them more effective managers of domesticated elephants. We hope that services designed to improve elephant welfare will continue to improve.


Lair, R. 1997. Gone astray, the care and management of the Asian elephant in domesticity. FAO, Bangkok, 300 pp.

Lungka, K. 2000. Action plan for the conservation of Asian elephants in Thailand, 1999-2001. WWF Thailand Programme Office, Bangkok, 144 pp.

Ratanakorn, P. 1998. Guideline for the restraint, immobilization and euthanasia in [sic] elephants. Bangkok, 85 pp.

Ratanakorn, P. 1999. Minimum requirements for health status and management of Asian elephants in South East Asia. The National Identity Office, Bangkok, 199 pp.

Ratanakorn, P. 2000. Assessment and Management of Reproductive System in Asian Elephants. The Committee on Coordination of Elephant Conservation in Thailand, Bangkok, 152 pp.

Question and answer session

Mr Roger Lohanan stated that he would like to see NGOs give a priority to:

These photographs illustrate the activities of the Mobile Service Unit jointly set up by various NGOs. They include preventive medication, routine health care and emergency treatment services for the welfare of the domesticated elephants living in rural areas in Thailand.

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