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The elephant situation in Thailand and a plea for co-operation - Roger Lohanan


Thai elephants have been highly praised and nationally proclaimed throughout history, but very little has been done to protect them. The threats against Thai elephants come only from human exploitation. Direct threats include poaching for ivory and elephant calves, and illegal logging or roaming the city streets for money. Indirect threats involve mismanagement and shortsighted policies, such as deforestation for agriculture, industrial plantations, dams or road constructions and commercialization of the forest reserve areas.

One question often raised by observers is,"Why can't Thailand solve its elephant problem?” The answers vary. Some officials reply,"There are complications involved, the laws, the culture, the diminishing forest land, people's livelihoods, national revenue, etc.” Others reply,"Responsible organizations dare not do anything decisive for fear of conflicts.” There are even rumours about conflicts of interest surrounding elephant welfare. For the Thai Animal Guardians Association (AGA), the answer is, ‘Lack of unity'.

Many studies have been completed and many solutions have been proposed since 1991, but none of these have been implemented. Many committees have been formed and countless discussions have taken place but, so far, there has been no firm action. The obstacle is not the diversity of proposals. It is the lack of decisiveness and consistency of effort to solve the problem that has resulted in deteriorating conditions for the country's elephants. And success does not lie in following any particular path.

The Thai AGA has studied the situation thoroughly and concluded that there are two factors to consider:

1) The Government along with the animal welfare and environmental NGOs should form a National Committee with full authority to collaborate with any other agency or institution to formulate effective measures to protect the elephant.

2) These measures, embedded in practical plans, should be delivered for approval and enforcement on a national scale. Any outdated legislation should be amended, and new regulations necessary for implementing the plans should be adopted.

Wild elephants

Legal status:

Elephants are listed as Protected Animals under the Conservation Act 1992. But, considering the present situation, they should now be listed as endangered.


In 1991 the number of wild elephants was reported as 1 900. There has been no official record since. It was estimated in 1997 that the number dropped to 1 700, and these consisting mainly of females and young males without tusks. This estimate is, however, said to be inaccurate. Judging from the number of elephants sighted and the number of elephants killed or found dead between 1991 and 1999, there should be less than 1 000 elephants in the nation's forests. Nevertheless, a complete survey and record of the actual number of elephants in the wild should be a high priority if proper protection is to be a national commitment.


The forest area in Thailand has reduced from 80 percent in 1957 to approximately less than 20 percent in 1992, largely because of deforestation associated with inappropriate developments. Although logging was banned in 1989, 70 percent of the forest area had already disappeared, and illegal logging continues. Shifting cultivation by tribal villagers, dam and road constructions, even gas pipelines, eucalyptus and pineapple plantations, as well as resort developments in forest reserve areas, have all added to the devastation. These inappropriate developments continue to deprive elephants of their natural habitat and feeding grounds, force them to migrate into dangerous areas, and lead to conflicts between elephants seeking food and plantation owners - such conflicts usually end with more elephants being poisoned or killed.

Illegal poaching for elephant tusks and elephant calves distorts sex ratios in the population and effects reproduction. Males are hunted for tusks, and females are killed for their calves. It has been said that to capture an elephant calf, three or more female elephants fostering the calf must die.

In general, elephant populations in the wild continue to decrease, while the domesticated elephant population increases.


Put all wild elephants on the endangered species list rather than just consider them a protected species. This will empower related authorities to prevent the commercial exploitation of elephant parts.

Prohibit all products made out of elephant parts, including ivory, skin, bone and all organs from both live and dead elephants regardless of elephant origin and the cause of death. This is to prevent fraudulent claims that parts are derived from domesticated elephants in and outside of the country. It is impossible to tell the difference between ivory derived from a wild elephant and a domesticated one.

Totally reform domesticated elephant registration from birth to death, with accurate identification - microchip plus DNA recording - to prevent registration fraud, especially with elephant calves. The conspicuous increase in domesticated elephants suggests there could be a number of wild elephant calves being posed as domestically born. For every fraudulent calf, there could have been as many as four foster mothers killed.

Declare all remaining forest land reserve forest and prohibit any unsustainable use of forest resources. Restrict further development in forest land. Any project that would effect the ecosystem must be prevented or revoked. There must exist the resolve to stop giving in to financial interests, local or national, when conservation is at risk.

Educate local populations about elephant conservation, the problems involved and the related laws. Wild elephants are sometime killed by villagers seeking valuable forest products or by plantation farmers on former elephant feeding grounds.

Strengthen law enforcement and forest rangers with authority to investigate conservation related cases and suppress crimes involving forest resources.

Domesticated elephants

Legal status:

Domesticated elephants are considered to be commercial animals under the Beast of Burden Act 1939. The owner has the right to trade and use the animal at will.


There are about 3 000 domesticated elephants in 41 provinces and three regions, approximately 2 500 in the North, over 400 in the Northeast or E-sarn area, and about 100 in Central Thailand and in zoos around the country. The Western region's elephant population consists mainly of wild elephants.

Work status:

After logging was banned in 1989, most elephants became unemployed or were forced to engage in illegal logging near or over the border in Burma. Some elephants have been crippled or have died falling from cliffs, while others have been crippled as a result of stepping on landmines. Some elephants are given amphetamine and other drugs to enable them to work long hours.

Other types of work Thai domesticated elephants do are patrolling the jungle with forest rangers, in the tourism industry (either as an exhibit or giving rides to tourists in many Northern resorts and elephant parks in Central Thailand), and in local ceremonies in the Northeast. There is an Elephant Festival in Surin northeast of Bangkok, which takes place only once a year. Some Thai elephants have been exported for employment overseas, but frequently return as casualties.

Since mid 1999, there have been a few arrangements to recruit elephants into entertainment places such as circuses and cinemas. Unfortunately, most elephant owners or mahouts prefer to bring their elephants to roam the streets of Bangkok and other large cities for money.

Unemployment and starvation are the root of all domesticated elephant problems in Thailand. After logging was banned, all northern elephants became unemployed. Many of the elephants are not tame enough to work in resorts or entertainment places, and end up engaged in illegal logging. Deforestation by government projects and industrial plantations worsens the situation by depriving the elephants of their natural food sources.

E-sarn elephants are better adapted for employment in entertainment places, but the Elephant Festival in Surin happens only once a year and local ceremonies using elephants are becoming rarer. Most forest land has been converted into eucalyptus plantations. Elephant owners cannot afford to feed their animals. A majority of Surin mahouts now bring their elephants to the city, taking them on what are plainly begging rounds.


Laws and regulations involving domesticated elephants are ineffective and outdated. The Beast of Burden Act 1939 has been in use since the time elephants were still a means of transport in Thailand. The elephant identification paper is just as outdated. No personal description is included, and no positive ID can be made. The time required to report a new born elephant used to be eight years and was recently changed to three. Ideally, it should be as early as possible after birth.

Transfers by purchase of domesticated elephants cause these smart and sentimental animals considerable stress and difficulty in adjusting from one new owner to the next. Many mahouts riding the elephants are neither the original or real owners - just keepers. These keepers have no emotional ties to the elephants, tend to mistreat the animals and cannot control them during an emergency. This sometime results in tragedy, e.g. when an elephant is in musth or becomes enraged.

Improper handling and employment such as abusive training, excessive use of force for punishment, use of drugs, lack of proper care, animal exploitation, illegal logging, wandering the streets for money, etc. lead to many animal welfare problems and sometimes threaten public safety.

1) Thai elephant trainers still believe in excessive force like tight cuffs on all four legs to discipline young calves and the use of a spike hammer for punishment.

2) Elephants are ordered to stand on two front legs or on a small box to entertain tourists and locals. These elephants will likely have bone disorders when older. When not performing, elephants are confined in short chains for the rest of the day. This results in long term neurotic behaviour, observable when an elephant sways its head side to side all the time like it's dancing.

3) Baby elephants are forced to perform on the street for money. Most of them are separated from their mothers and fed with beer and amphetamines for the entertainment of tourists. More and more baby elephants are now found roaming the city streets. Some of these could have been smuggled in from the wild. If so, it means that as many as four adult females (foster mothers) may have been killed in the process.

4) Elephants engaged in illegal logging are often drugged with amphetamines to enable them to work long hours. Many elephants step on landmines and are crippled for life or die. Once an elephant is crippled, it is of no use to the owner and likely to be killed for its meat.

5) Most elephant resorts pay little or no attention to animal welfare. Elephants have to work long hours with not enough to eat or time to rest. House vets are virtually unheard of. Medical attention is given only when the animal is already sick.

6) Other incidents involving mistreated elephants and threats to public safety include elephants going on the rampage in the city, attacks on owners and villagers, traffic accidents, etc. For example, ‘Petch,' a male elephant that had been chained in a temple for 17 years and suffered from a neurotic disorder, had to be gunned down by the police during a five hours rampage on New Year's eve 1995. In 1999, an elephant attacked a group of tourists during a performance. In 1997, ‘Boon Choo,' a 72 years old elephant, fell into an open sewer and died. Elephants drowning in city swamps or getting hit by cars have become common news items.

Deforestation effects both wild and domesticated elephants. A full-grown elephant consumes about 200 kg a day, which is more than an ordinary farmer can afford. Owners usually let their elephants feed on natural vegetation in the jungle and bathe in a nearby canal. Deforestation has taken away all these, especially in the Eastern part of Thailand.

1) Eucalyptus plantations have replaced bamboo bushes that elephants used to feed on. Many rivers are now running low, and the now ubiquitous irrigation systems do not accommodate elephants.

2) In the north, food and water are still available in the mountains. But, even here, there are problems. Domesticated elephants are accused of damaging the forests and polluting the streams. Elephant owners claim that Thai villagers have made these accusations because they do not wish to share the forest resource (bamboo shoots) with elephants. Local councils and forest authorities make life difficult for elephant owners who have no citizenship. Elephants are prevented from entering forest reserve areas.

Unfair or exploitative business practices.

1) Unfair employment practices make appropriate careers very unattractive and the problems of domesticated elephants very difficult to solve. The mahouts are underpaid and without legal contract. If there is one, it is usually to the employer's advantage and often breached without compensation. The annual Elephant Festival in Surin is a multi-million baht affair, but the mahouts are paid less than 3 000 baht for their participation.

2) Businessmen recruit elephants from poor owners - sometime as part of a loan arrangement - and then rent the elephants back to them or to any mahout for street roaming. Surin mahouts prefer bringing elephants to beg in major cities like Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pattaya, and Phuket. An average income of 15 000-30 000 baht per month from the streets makes this controversial career very attractive, despite the high competition. Problems involving elephants roaming city streets are discussed in Thai AGA's No City Elephant campaign presented in Annex 1.

3) Elephant welfare is seriously threatened by claims of poverty and starvation. The mahout's poor economic status and the threat of elephants starving are always used to get public sympathy. This has created a vacuum in solving the problems. Authorities and animals activists consider the issue to be highly sensitive and hesitate to act. Some activists end up protecting business interests instead of animal welfare.

4) Dozens of committees have been formed, but no solution has been fully implemented. Every time the word poverty or starvation is brought up, any corrective action is compromised. Animal welfare is sacrificed for human short-term interests. Authorities and owners are willing to risk elephant lives to address the issue of unemployment. Elephants are still allowed to cross the border into Burma, where logging is still legal, for employment. Many elephants have stepped on landmines and have become crippled or have died. ‘No City Elephant' has been the policy of Bangkok Metropolitan Authority and the Police since 1992, and is frequently reiterated. But more elephants are coming to the city every year to be crippled or to die in traffic accidents or in the city's swamps.

5) In the case of city elephants, it is a case of poverty turned to profit. Many proposals have been formulated and budgets spent without real improvement. Hardship has also struck many northern elephants, but beggary is not encouraged. Northern mahouts are also poor, and their elephants starving, but they do not roam the streets. Only mahouts from Surin insist on roaming the streets and refuse to accept alternative careers claiming that the income is too low. When the public is alerted and the authorities are firm, someone will claim that,"the mahouts are not ready” and ask for more time. This has been going on for ten years. The likelihood is that the mahouts will never be ready if excuses are always accepted.

6) Elephant organizations in Thailand are very prominent and strong. And, for the same reason, collaboration is sometimes difficult. Each organization has its own solution and methods, which do not necessarily coincide with those of others. Authorities and the public are sometime confused and do not know which to follow. There are rumours about discordance among elephant activists. The public is sad to hear reports about conflicts over elephant custody.


Remove domesticated elephants from the Beast of Burden Act and place them under the Protection of Wildlife Conservation Act 1992. Owners can continue to care and work the elephants through a permit. Transfer of ownership or the permit should be firmly restricted. In cases of violations, the permits can be revoked, and the animal can then be confiscated. All elephants born after confiscation should become government property.

Provide elephant medicare and food to owners and organizations with elephants under their care. Veterinary visits should be provided for all domesticated elephants in the country. This will help minimize expenditure for those who care for elephants.

Totally revise the registration method for positive identification of all domesticated elephants. Birth records, transfer of title deeds, breeding and death reports should be regulated to prevent registration fraud between wild and domesticated elephants. Newborn elephants should be reported and registered soon after birth.

Bring forth the Animal Welfare Legislation as a preventive measure against any loophole of the existing Conservation Act.

Ban elephants roaming the streets and provide appropriate careers for the mahouts. Regulate elephant businesses to ensure a fair contract for the mahouts. This will eliminate the elephant loaning business for beggary, and protect elephant welfare and public safety.

Upgrade the status and expertise of mahouts to a professional level. Anyone seeking benefit from their elephants should pay a fair price. Thai mahouts should receive professional recognition and a fair income.

Consider the possibility of a rehabilitation process. Third or fourth generation domesticated elephants may be released together, in a suitable area, for rehabilitation in the wild.


Problems surrounding Thai elephants can be readily solved. It is not necessarily a dead end, but could become a never-ending story. Unity and determination will ensure success.

Wild elephants have to be conserved along with their habitat - the forest. If rehabilitation of domesticated elephants is not possible, work in the tourism and entertainment industry appears to be the only choice. Nevertheless, one should not allow human interest or personal differences to get in the way of conservation efforts.

Any activity or development that threatens elephant welfare or their habitat should not be allowed. Mahouts who bring elephants to the city for money, villagers who exploit the forest resources, gift shops that sell ivory, businessmen who turn forest land into plantations, officials with ideas to commercialize the forest reserves, or politicians who like to propose budgets for more dams must be stopped.

Annex 1. Why an elephant resort should not be in Bangkok

1) Bangkok is crowded with buildings, houses, markets and business places. The empty spaces found in different corners of the city are either privately or government owned properties waiting for investment. They are usually surrounded by buildings, thus, may be good for a hideout but not for a resort. Even the outskirts of the city cannot accommodate 400 elephants waiting to march to Bangkok.

2) Bangkok's climate is always hot and humid, and the air is badly polluted. Every leaf and greenery is coated with toxic deposits. Medical records show that elephants on the street suffer respiratory and intestinal infections. An appropriate elephant resort should be in natural surroundings.

3) Unlike elephants in natural resorts, those in the city will have no room for free exercise. They will be chained up after work, and will develop mental disorders.

4) An elephant resort requires a vast space to accommodate tourist activities and to shelter all the elephants and the mahouts and their families. Each elephant requires a large amount of food and water for drinking and bathing. They also leave a large amount of dung that needs to be disposed of. The resort would require a huge budget for landscaping, administration, and maintenance.

5) Elephant resorts around the country are already struggling to survive. A Bangkok resort would adversely affect those in other regions. Elephant tourism in the north and in Surin could collapse. More elephants would be forced to come to the city. Neither Bangkok nor any major city is large enough to accommodate 3 000 unemployed elephants.

6) An elephant resort in Bangkok, or in any city nearby, would become an excuse for elephants from all over the country to migrate to Bangkok. It is unlikely that the authorities would be able to control the migration.

7) Any attention or interest a city resort may receive in the beginning is unlikely to be sustained. When the profits are down, disputes would follow, and the mahouts will take to the streets. The city would not be able to control the situation. Neither can it absorb or compensate the financial loss in case of business failure.

8) All authorities in Bangkok know that enforcement is difficult once elephants are in the city. There is not enough manpower to deal with runaway mahouts and their elephants.

One baby elephant in a garbage-dump hideout.

A number of elephants living among stray dog in one of the city hideouts.

A busy business district is one of the popular begging sites.

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