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General care and reproductive management of pregnant and infant elephants at the Ayutthaya Elephant Camp - Puttipong Khawnual and Brian Clarke


The Ayutthaya Elephant Camp was founded in 1997 for the purpose of providing mahouts and working elephants with stable jobs in Thailand's growing tourist industry. By offering the highest standard of care to its elephants, the Camp strives to set an example for similar facilities throughout Thailand.

Elephants require an enormous amount of food and water, as well as specialized medical attention. The money needed to secure these necessities is earned by the elephants' work at the Camp, giving rides to 10 000 visitors per annum in Ayutthaya Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The animals are, in effect, self-supporting.

With a population of 80 elephants (7 males and 73 females), the Camp is able to provide a rotation of working days for each elephant. Fresh water, for bathing and drinking, is offered several times throughout the work day. A light mist, from water outlets adjacent to the guest loading area, provides constant relief to the animals on hot days. The walkway along the elephants' route through the Park is also sprayed to reduce heat. Walking helps wear the foot pads and toenails to prevent overgrowth, and exercise supports the overall health of the elephants.

The system of one-on-one care at the Camp assures that individuals with"time off” graze in nearby woods or grasslands, swim, socialize, or spend quality time with their mahouts (caretakers). The mahout steers his elephant using his voice, feet, and hook. The elephant hook can be compared with a dog leash, or reigns on a horse. It is used for steering and to correct the elephant.

Some of the Camp's elephants have been taught to paint, and have received international media attention for their work. These paintings, a favourite with guests, are available for purchase at the Camp. Meanwhile, the recognition and enthusiasm generated by projects such as this help call attention to the Camp's mission, its goals, and the critical situation facing Thailand's elephants today.

The Ayutthaya elephants live at the ancient Royal Elephant Corral, about 2 km from the Camp. The Corral is home to the elephants, mahouts and staff, and a full-time veterinarian. The animals are given routine veterinary examinations and medical treatments each morning and evening. Formerly employed in Thailand's now-defunct tropical hardwood industry, many of the elephants here were rescued from ivory and meat processors, or illegal loggers, or were rescued after being abandoned before weaning age, or because of injury or disease. Others came from private owners who were unwilling or financially unable to maintain and care for them.

Both the Camp and the Corral are managed by the Elephant Care Assembly (ECA), Thailand's foremost domesticated elephant advocacy group. The ECA also encourages the dissemination of traditional knowledge and scientific research among the elephant care facilities of Thailand and the rest of the world.

For the price of an elephant ride, guests can support the work of the Camp and help to ensure the survival of Thai elephants.

General management of the mothers

Our management system is modelled on small-scale agricultural enterprises, such as the traditional single-family farm. This allows us to provide individualized care to many animals efficiently.

1. Nutrition and Feeding - We obtain large quantities of vegetable- and grain-based foods from a variety of sources. Intake of each food type is balanced to produce an optimal diet.

1) Primary Food - The main component of our elephants' diet is fresh vegetation, purchased in a total quantity of approximately three four-ton truckloads per day. Some variation in the actual type of vegetation is necessary because of seasonal availability, but this is seen as a benefit because the animals are susceptible to both nutritional deficits and boredom when only one plant species is offered. Specific examples of foods in this category include banana, pineapple, and tamarind tree branches, and corn stalks. To supplement these items and maintain the elephants' feeding schedule in the event of supply shortages, the Camp has secured 400 rai of nearby farmland. This land can provide large quantities of elephant grass, corn stalks, and other plant matter when necessary. Our elephants are offered these foods continuously throughout the day, with the last feeding at 8:00 PM, and the weight of each elephant's daily intake is monitored and recorded.

2) Secondary Food - Fresh produce, including bananas, sugarcane, pineapples, and water chestnuts, is purchased in a total quantity of two seven-ton truckloads per week. These items stimulate the elephants' appetite and alleviate boredom; they are offered in small quantities throughout the day by Camp staff and visitors.

3) Supplemental Food - To make up for any vitamin and mineral deficiencies, a commercial feed consisting of pelleted rice bran chaff and trace elements is mixed with iodized salt (NaCl) and a vitamin premix, and offered twice per day. Each adult elephant may consume this mixture at-will for approximately fifteen minutes, both before and after work.

4) Water - Two separate sources of water are employed to ensure maximum daily intake. The elephants will drink from the Lopburi River, which runs adjacent to the Royal Elephant Corral, at their morning and evening baths there. Unlimited quantities of treated water are also provided, as needed, from a trough at the Camp during working hours.

2. Waste Management - Disposal of waste products, which consist of faeces, urine, and uneaten food, is conducted in a conscientious manner that minimizes environmental impact and utilizes biological controls.

1) Faeces and Food Waste - These are collected by truck each morning and evening, and composted to produce a nutritious and effective plant fertilizer.

2) EM Spraying - To reduce offensive odours, expedite the breakdown of solid and liquid waste by-products, and control the spread of pathogens, especially during Thailand's rainy season, we treat all resting and walking areas with Effective Micro-organisms (EM), a commercial preparation of enzymes and beneficial bacteria.

3. Veterinary Care - In the interest of creating a flexible, sustainable system of health management, we developed and implemented a comprehensive annual veterinary care plan that could be easily and effectively duplicated in a variety of settings. Our efforts will culminate in the opening of an elephant health and breeding centre and teaching hospital at the Royal Elephant Corral.

1) Outline of the Annual Care Plan - A clearly defined list of daily, weekly, monthly, and annual action items is provided for each individual directly involved in caring for the elephants and administered by the staff veterinarian. If a specific component is found to be redundant or unnecessary, or fails to produce the desired outcome, it can be adjusted or eliminated. To minimize the possibility of this, the plan was developed in conjunction with the mahouts, whose daily experiences and wealth of practical and traditional knowledge are an invaluable, but much neglected, resource. Modern scientific and pharmacological knowledge, acquired at the Faculty of Veterinary Science, Chulalongkorn University, further enhanced the plan's scope. Consultations with senior faculty there, as well as many colleagues, have been instrumental throughout the development and implementation process. The maxim that,"an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” effectively summarizes the plan's central principle, and we have attempted to create a system that heavily emphasizes routine preventative medicine and keeps the necessity of critical treatment to an absolute minimum.

a) Daily Plan - A routine physical examination of every elephant is conducted each morning and evening. This will reveal external or internal injuries, limping, and ear, eye, foot, nail etc. abnormalities. Any unusual symptoms or behaviour, as noted by each mahout, are evaluated. Necessary treatments can be performed immediately, and an appropriate period of rest is prescribed.

b) Weekly Plan - The most common injuries among our working elephants are abrasions. These occur along the back, where they are caused by the shifting of the bench used during elephant rides, and across the chest, caused by the belt that holds the bench in place. Any signs of swelling, inflammation, or skin irritation are checked visually and by palpation. If such signs are revealed, treatment and rest begin immediately. Tamarind, which acts as a mild laxative, is administered weekly, in addition to the dietary components iodized salt and vitamin premix; these duplicate the foraging for minerals and medicinal herbs that has been observed in wild elephants. During the rainy season, Gentian Violet is applied weekly to all elephants' feet, which helps reduce the possibility of fungal and bacterial infection. This is sometimes mixed with coconut oil to prevent drying of the skin.

c) Monthly Plan - Tail dipping, with insecticide, is conducted for two seconds each month to control ectoparasites such as fleas, ticks, and lice. To control endoparasites, a one milligram per kg of body weight dosage of Mebenazole 500 mg is also administered for routine deworming.

d) Every Three Months - Broad-spectrum deworming is provided by a one percent solution of Ivermectin, administered by subcutaneous injection in an approximate dosage of one cc to each 500 kg of body weight. Random faecal examinations are also conducted, using fresh smear and sedimentation techniques.

e) Every Four Months - Each female elephant is given an intramuscular injection of AD3E, in a dosage of one cc per 100 kg of body weight, to promote reproductive health.

f) Every Six Months - The elephants' weights are measured using a scale at a nearby rice mill, and recorded. Each elephant is also vaccinated against Haemorrhagic Septicaemia.

g) Annually - Blood samples are collected from all elephants and screened by machine at Ayutthaya Hospital, which performs this yearly service without charge. The screening can predict and reveal what may not be observable in other ways. Routine work-ups include CBC and blood chemistry, to check kidney and liver function, etc. [BUN, Creatinine, SGPT (ALT), total protein, AP].

The annual plan schedule for 2001-2002 is reproduced in Table 1.

Table 1. Annual plan schedule for 2000-2001


Scheduled procedures


Deworming P/O, Tail Dipping, Weight Check, Faecal Exam


Deworming P/O, Tail Dipping, Deworming S/C, HS Vaccination


Deworming P/O, Tail Dipping, AD3E


Deworming P/O, Tail Dipping


Deworming P/O, Tail Dipping, Faecal Exam


Deworming P/O, Tail Dipping, Deworming S/C


Deworming P/O, Tail Dipping


Deworming P/O, Tail Dipping, Weight Check, AD3E


Deworming P/O, Tail Dipping


Deworming P/O, Tail Dipping, Blood Collection, Faecal Exam, HS Vaccination


Deworming P/O, Tail Dipping, Deworming S/C


Deworming P/O, Tail Dipping, AD3E

2) Veterinary Area Restraint - For safety reasons, physical restraint at the vet station is provided by a"Ben-Ja-Pat”, a set of metal posts and inclined crossbars to which chains can be affixed at various points.

Special management of pregnant females

A total of four elephants have delivered calves at the Camp since its founding. Of these, two were mated here and two were pregnant when they were purchased by the Camp (see Table 2). Our management programme allows for natural interaction between bulls and female elephants, and strives to encourage mating and promote reproductive health.

Table 2. Vital statistics for mothers and camp-born infants

Mother No.


Mating date

Parturition date

Gestation period



May 1998

February 2000

22 months



Not known

October 2000

Not known



Not known

November 2000

Not known



March 1999

December 2000

22 months

1. Estrus Detection - Observable factors, well-known among mahouts, signal the onset of heat in female elephants and can be described broadly as follows.

1) In the female:

a) Behaviour changes, such as sudden decreased responsiveness to mahouts' commands and presenting rearward in the presence of bulls.

b) Sticky, translucent vaginal discharge, white in colour (resembles the spinbakyte in cattle).

c) Unusually frequent attempts to smell reproductive organs of other elephants.

2) The bulls' behaviour also provides clues and can even predict the onset of heat or signal"silent” (symptomless) heat.

a) The bull will sniff the vagina of a particular female more often than usual.

b) The bull's penis will begin to protrude while sniffing.

3) Finally, the female will exhibit certain behaviours when the bull approaches as above:

a) Increased tolerance of and attentiveness to this interest.

b) Again, turning to present rearward.

c) The hind legs will widen slightly during the act of sniffing.

2. Semen Evaluation - These services are contracted with other facilities, such as Kasetsart University, that use the analytical data in their fertility research and share the results with us.

3. Mating Programme Management - After the onset of heat is observed, an initial attempt will be made to mate the female in two to three days. In the event that the advances of the first bull are unsuccessful, additional attempts may be made with other bulls. Our expectation is that the female will demonstrate a preference for one bull over the others, not unusual in an animal with the social complexity of elephants. The mahouts of both the male elephant and the female elephant stand by during courtship and mating to prevent accidents.

4. Pregnancy Check - No test for early pregnancy has yet proven to be both reliable and practical, so we have incorporated both traditional knowledge and recently developed laboratory techniques in our efforts to determine pregnancy.

1) Traditional Knowledge - An experienced mahout can recognize the signs of pregnancy after five to six months of gestation. Subtle changes in behaviour and responsiveness can be observed, and a hardening of the breast tissue can be felt.

2) Laboratory Facilities - Serum progesterone levels in radio-immunoassay (RIA) are analyzed in co-operation with researchers from Chulalongkorn University, who periodically collect blood samples from our females. This procedure is relatively new in Thailand and is prohibitively expensive. Progesterone levels can indicate pregnancy as soon as two or three months after a successful mating. Efforts are underway to contract RIA sampling with Ayutthaya Hospital.

5. Medication - Once pregnancy is determined, 5 000 mg of phosphorus-buffered calcium is administered three times per week, and more frequently as pregnancy progresses, to aid in foetal bone formation.

Three stages of the parturition process

This outline was developed in consultation with mahouts and elephant researchers by the Ayutthaya Elephant Camp Staff Veterinarian, Dr Puttipong Khawnual, who has personally guided three births here. It describes the three distinct steps of the parturition process.

1. Stage One (Parturition preparation stage): Labour contractions are internal and cannot be determined by observation. However the period of one to three days before parturition is generally marked by the appearance of some or all of the following signs:

1) Moderate changes in behaviour, again including decreased response to mahout commands.

2) Decreased appetite and increased anxiety in familiar situations.

3) A clear or yellowish vaginal discharge that accompanies the release of the mucous plug covering the opening of the cervix.

2. Stage Two (Foetal expulsion stage): Actual parturition rarely lasts more than ten seconds and normally occurs at night.

1) Emergence of the foetus from the cervix is indicated by distension at the posterior of the vagina, which is observable until the foetus is completely discharged.

2) This is immediately preceded by loud vocalizations, extreme agitation, and an erect tail.

3) Birth is normally in the dorsal longitudinal anterior position (the trunk, head, and forefeet appear first). As the foetus emerges, however, it curls into the ventral position.

4) The mother's behaviour at this point depends upon her individual experience of births, either her own or other females' whose deliveries she may have witnessed. Some elephants will prod the infant with their trunk or forelegs to release the infant from the amniotic sac or as a circulatory and respiratory stimulant. Females without previous birth experience may initially attack the infant or display exaggerated versions of these behaviours as a result of stress and shock.

5) The infant can stand up by itself in an average time of 10-30 minutes.

3. Stage Three (Placental expulsion stage): This stage usually occurs within 24 hours of the end of Stage Two. In one birth at the Camp, release of the placenta did not occur until the 96 hours mark, and a case of retained placenta was suspected. See Table 3.

Table 3. Placental expulsion stages and times

Mother No.

Stage 1 (hrs)

Stage 2 (sec)

Stage 3 (hrs)

Standing time (min)







Retained placenta


Not observed






Not observed





Parturition checklist

1. Prepartum management

1) Regular treated water bathing, and washing around the vagina with one percent solution of povidone-iodine once per day.

2) Thorough cleaning of the nursery area and treatment with EM.

3) Decrease food intake to prevent constipation.

2. Parturient management

1) If necessary, brief staff on the potential need for intervention in a crisis situation, such as an attack on the infant by the mother.

2) Ensure that mahout and staff with spears or other instruments are in attendance in case of emergency.

3. Postpartum management

1) Day One After Parturition (D1): Intramuscular injection of Oxytocin 100 IU to increase milk-letdown and prevent postpartum haemorrhage.

2) D2 and D5: To prevent and treat diseases similar to mastitis metritis and agalactia (MMA) in swine, and other infections by bacteria sensitive to penicillin, penicillin and streptomycin long acting (LA) is administered intramuscularly in a dosage of 3 000 IU per kg of body weight.

3) D1 through D15: To prevent postpartum haemorrhage and uterine bleeding, Methylergometrin maleate 0.2 mg is injected daily in a dosage of 0.001 mg per kg of body weight for 15 days after parturition.

4) D7 and D30: Blood is collected for a routine postpartum check.

5) To prevent disease similar to milk fever in cattle, Calcium gluconate 500 mg is administered orally in a quantity of 20 tablets per day until weaning.

6) Nursery area is cleaned and sprayed with EM every day.

4. Neonatal management

1) D1: The infant should begin nursing, with assistance if necessary, and drink as much colostrum as possible.

2) D1: Two stitches, with black silk No. 2 and 1 cm apart, tie off the umbilical cord at a distance of about one inch from the abdomen.

3) D1 through D7: The cord is sprayed with a ten percent povidone-iodine solution, two times a day, to prevent bacterial infection (especially Clostridium spp.).

4) D1 and D4: To prevent and treat tetanus and other bacterial infections with sensitivity to penicillin, penicillin and streptomycin long acting (LA) is given in a dosage of 3 000 IU per kg of body weight by intramuscular injection.

5) D2 and D14: To prevent iron deficiency, Iron dextran is injected in a dosage of 1.5 mg per kg of body weight. This is administered with Vitamin C 500 mg in a dosage of 10 mg per kg of body weight, which promotes Iron dextran absorption.

6) D2, D3, and D17: Deworming with Pyrantel pamoate suspension 50 mg in an oral dosage of 5 mg per kg of body weight. This is repeated each month.

7) Random faecal examinations are conducted one week after each deworming.


Many people believe that the Asian elephant is already extinct in the wild; they just do not know the fact. That is to say, an expanding human population precludes the continued viability of any wild elephant population. African elephants may well find themselves in the same dire predicament in 25-50 years. If people want elephants in the world, some level of managed contact with humans will be a necessary component of all elephants' lives in the coming decades. We believe that this relationship can be vastly improved by co-operation among the elephant facilities of Thailand, and the rest of the world, on health and management issues.

The Elephant Managers Association, an international nonprofit organization of professional elephant handlers, recently stated that"elephants may be chained at night to prevent fighting, as a viable alternative to single stall accommodation. Continuous chaining should be limited, and every effort should be made to provide as much time off chains as possible.” This has been the policy of Thai elephant keepers for nearly 5 000 years! The kochakam, the traditional Thai system of elephant keeping - one man, one elephant, together for life - is well alive. We believe that it is the best. For our young elephants, and for every elephant who comes to live with us (whatever their origin) we will honour that system and the lifelong responsibility it carries with it.

We would like to take an active role in defining"the management system of the future,” and will conclude with our goals:

Figures 1 and 2 show some baby elephants at the Ayutthaya Elephant Camp.

Question and answer session

Dr Daranee commented that the blood samples from group one in her study (that showed nutritional deficiency) came from Ayutthaya Camp elephants. This showed that even if you gave the elephants excellent care there was still a danger of nutritional deficiency.

Dr Puttipong, Staff Veterinarian at the Camp, said that he was very disappointed with these results and was taking steps to improve the nutrition of the elephants under his care.

Figures 1 and 2. Baby elephants at Ayutthaya Elephant Camp

Figures 1 and 2. Baby elephants at Ayutthaya Elephant Camp

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