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Shelter is a critical element in any elephant facility or camp. Shelter falls into two major types according to use:

The characteristics of good housing should have the following properties:

As for other materials, such as tile, they are likely to be used in situations where the purpose is to regularly treat sick elephants because they offer good protection from heat and because they are long lasting. The disadvantage of other materials is that they are expensive. Some sites that want to filter out sun use "sun layer" [saleen: A plastic screening used in plant nurseries.]

Warning: The use of galvanized tin for roofs is not recommended as it collects heat.

Warning: Some elephants should not be left unattended at night because they will attempt to damage the housing.

Warning: It is best to avoid putting elephants that are unfamiliar with each other in the same housing.

Be sited in an appropriate location. The location should be chosen being aware that:


The elephant is an animal that is very susceptible to overheating, and consequently it is very fond of bathing and covering itself in mud. A mature elephant drinks approximately 120 litres of water daily, by sucking up water in its trunk (about 10-15 litres at a time) and then spraying it into its mouth. It is thus essential to always have clean water available for both drinking and bathing. Elephants usually drink at the same time they bathe, enabled by the mahout, usually twice a day (morning and late afternoon). Besides drinking, elephants also need water to be sprayed over their bodies to help dissipate heat.

Because elephants will often urinate and, more particularly, defecate in the water in which they bathe, this can pose health problems in transmitting infectious diseases. If at all possible the mahout should use different water sources for drinking and bathing. The mahout should also encourage the elephant to drink before bathing, so as to lessen chances for contracting a disease. If possible, elephants should not be allowed to drink from ponds or tanks used by domestic cattle or water buffalo. If the water is a moving natural source, such as a river or a stream, the elephants should be encouraged to drink first from an area upstream from the bathing area.



Food has incredible impact on the health of elephants. Proper nutrition, ensuring that appropriate foods are offered and in the right quantities, makes for healthy elephants resistant to disease. If a veterinarian inspects an elephant camp and sees the animals are generally in poor condition, the very first suspicion for a cause is not disease but rather bad food or insufficient food or both.

The subject of food is divided into two main sections, first, the social and economic aspects of food today in Thailand, and, second, the practicalities of the available food, particularly cultivated foods. The first section, social and economic aspects, should be of particular interest to caring and responsible camp owners and managers and should also be of interest to animal welfarists, conservationists and scientists. Hopefully the more thoughtful mahouts and foremen in tourist camps will see the subject of proper food as an accurate description of the problems they face.

The second section, practical aspects of food, should be of interest to all "elephant folk" including all working mahouts and, even more, camp managers.

A third section on food supplements for sick and out of condition elephants applies to elephants everywhere, whether a tourist camp or a more natural environment.

Social and economic factors in food

Since ancient times until maybe 20 to 30 years ago, domesticated elephants ate almost only natural, wild foods. Since then, the 1989 ban on logging has caused the loss of many jobs in the forest and there has been a steadily increasing number of jobs at tourist camps near cities and away from natural areas. In 2004 probably more than 1 000 domesticated elephants were spending all or most of their year eating cultivated foods.

The division between natural foods and cultivated foods is not always absolute. Some elephants working in suburban areas eat a mix which includes cultivated foods and natural grass. Some elephants living in rural areas eat a mix of both natural foods and agricultural foods. Further, some elephants spend part of the year in tourist camps and part of the year at home. Still, because natural food is rarely dangerous and cultivated food often is, and because a massive but still growing tourist industry ensures that ever higher numbers of elephants will be eating cultivated foods, any discussion of food and elephants’ health must deal with this recent change.

Natural food

Natural food is the best food for elephants, because it is what they have eaten through millions of years of evolution. Wild elephants will eat as many as 200 plant species during the course of a year, but their preferred staple food is grass and bamboo (which is a kind of grass). Elephants also eat lianas, wild palms, wild bananas, various shrubs, the leaves and bark of certain trees, and even plants that serve as herbs.

Natural food has three great advantages. First, it is cheap - usually free but sometimes costing modest grazing fees. Second, in most natural environments the elephant eating natural foods will get a full range of nutritional ingredients. Third, natural food is free from chemical contaminants, most importantly insecticides, pesticides and fertilizer residues.

There is nothing that this book or any book can teach mahouts about natural food. The older mahouts are past masters of natural elephant foods, expert amateur botanists who can without exception neasily identify hundreds of species of grasses and other plants. The young mahouts might know little, but their proper teachers are not books but rather the older mahouts. Sadly, much of the older mahouts’ knowledge about food plants found in the wild will surely die out unrecorded in the next few decades.

Cultivated foods in tourist camps

Times have changed, however, and with the coming of mass tourism, more and more elephants are dependent on foods grown by man. Cultivated foods frequently pose health problems associated with contaminants and nutrition, and these problems are discussed on page 19.

Cultivated foods must be bought, and they are almost always expensive. (Elephants need a great deal of food every day, on average about 100 kilograms a day.) High costs often lead to other problems. Elephants will often be fed insufficient food or poor quality food or both. Sometimes they are fed only one or two kinds of food, leading to nutritional imbalances and ultimately malnutrition. For example, in order to save money on food many elephants in the central region, Pattaya in particular, are fed mostly on rejected pineapples and pineapple tops bought very cheaply from canneries.

Economics of food

Running a commercial tourist camp is a highly competitive, even cut-throat, business with low profit margins. Elephant food is just one expense to be budgeted along with salaries, running vehicles, site rental, etc. Scrimping on elephant food to spend on something else or to keep as profit can be very tempting to unscrupulous personnel. Another problem is that because most elephant camps for tourism have at least ten elephants, the food gets usually bought in bulk and it is hard to cater to individual elephant’s needs. At certain times of year good and cheap food might be unavailable.

Food and camp owners and managers

Quite a few camp owners are very active in caring for their elephants, most particularly if they actually own them. Other camp owners will have entrusted all management to a manager. If that manager is both knowledgeable about elephant food and honest (spending all of the money given to him to purchase food for that purpose), the camp owner’s lack of involvement poses no problem. If the manager is dishonest, however, or if he knows little about elephants’ food needs, disaster can result.

Food and elephant ownership

Every elephant in a tourist camp falls into one of four categories:

Often the quality of the food given the elephants is reflected in this relationship. Camp owners who own the elephants and mahout-owners almost always provide good food, if only because it is protecting a valuable asset. Rented elephants can end up in unfortunate situations where owners or managers do not want to pour a lot of money into somebody else’s elephant. In some cases mahout-owners work for a salary (and tips) and the camp owner is obligated to supply the elephants’ food; if he provides bad food this can cause great tension between him and mahout-owners and mahouts who are responsible for their boss’s elephant.

Food and the mahout

In nearly all tourist camps the mahouts have very little control over the major part of their elephant’s diet. The camp owner selects the food and the mahout’s duty is to make sure that his elephant gets its fair share, and to be there to give it. A conscientious mahout will also see that his elephant gets as much local grass as possible, whether cutting it and bringing it to the elephant or taking the elephant to the grass. Mahouts caring for an elephant that does not belong to them can be lazy or even downright neglectful.


The food situation in any camp is very complicated and a microcosm unto itself. Before any elephant is properly fed there must be a conscientious camp owner, a conscientious manager, and a conscientious mahout. Any weak link in this chain is bad for the elephant, and the higher up the fault, the worse it is for elephants. Even if the camp owner, manager, and mahouts are all well-intentioned, the camp must be making enough of a profit that the camp owner has sufficient funds to buy good food.

For people concerned with elephants’ health, bad or insufficient food in a camp is a particularly frustrating issue because it is so difficult to address the problem. Veterinarians are forced to treat cases that should never have occurred in the first place. Because tourist camps are private businesses, concerned NGOs and civil servants have little power to implement improvements or force changes. In the end, all that can be said is that the thorny issue of food will require much attention in the future

Cultivated foods, practical aspects

The good part about cultivated foods compared to natural food is that most grown foods have very high nutritional value, but grown foods also have many drawbacks. First, cultivated foods must be bought and they are most often expensive. Second, cultivated foods are often contaminated with man-made chemicals, mostly insecticides and herbicides that are highly toxic to elephants. Third, in many situations, particularly tourist camps where elephants are fed largely with cultivated foods, the elephants will often be fed insufficient food, poor quality food, or fed only one or two kinds of food. Unbalanced food can lead to nutritional imbalances and ultimately malnutrition. Many elephants in Phuket or Pattaya, for example, are fed too many pineapples.


Cultivated fresh grass is very palatable and comes in great variety. The grasses generally given to elephants are the same as given to other draft animals: Bana Grass, Pangola grass, Napier (or Elephant) grass, Para grass, Guinea grass, and Ruzi grass. (See Table 1, page 146, for Thai and scientific names.) These grasses are available in great quantity. Many other grasses do not have the same nutritional value but are still acceptable. Besides these, there are still other grasses found in nature that the mahout can gather or to which the elephant can be taken and tethered. There are more grasses used to feed elephants in Thailand than those mentioned above. Mahouts should observe which grasses their elephant likes and which it does not like.

What is critically important is to try to not feed the elephant with only a single species of grass because not only will the elephant not eat fully but eating only one kind of grass can cause malnutrition from lack of some essential food component or trace element.

Warning to camp managers: You should be very careful if you buy grass from outside sources. Have a highly experienced mahout inspect all deliveries for freshness, absence of dirt, etc. Inspecting for contamination by herbicides and insecticides is difficult so it is best if you have a serious discussion with your supplier, and best of all is if you inspect the growing site yourself. Many veterinarians feel that some fertilizers have played a role in elephants made ill, even to the point of death, so you might insist that all grass comes from untreated soil.


Dried grass fed in Thailand is most often Pangola grass or Cavalcade. Dried grasses can be stored for a long time and easily transported. Dried grass is appropriate for elephants in musth because it has high fibre but

Cultivated foods, practical aspects little nutritional value. (The elephant has the satisfaction of eating but without getting the high calories which, it is believed, will cause a very long musth period.). Some mahouts enhance the palatability of dry grass by sprinkling it with salt water.

Warning: Dried grass scatters easily when the elephant gathers its food with its trunk, and many elephants like to play with the grass by throwing it over their bodies. Thus, dried grass should be given in small qualities at a time and replenished only after the elephant has eaten the last batch, otherwise much grass will be wasted.

Coconut fronds are good food for healthy elephants from growing calves to mature elephants. Coconut fronds are easily found over the whole country, and have the great advantage of being totally uncontaminated by chemicals.

Warning: Before giving fronds, they should be cut into pieces as long as the hand. Otherwise, the elephant will likely become constipated.

Banana tree stalks are appropriate for elephants in musth, elephants kept where water is scarce, and for all elephants when the weather is hot. Banana tree stalks have a high water and fibre content but very little nutritional value. Banana tree stalks are good when transporting elephants because they can supply much of the water the elephant needs, and because they provide the satisfaction of chewing or eating; banana stalks do all this in a "package" that is much easier and cleaner to carry than buckets of water and sheaves of grass.


Vegetables and fruits

Vegetables and fruits are given as regular food only to elephants working in tourist venues in or near commercial agricultural areas. Fruits and vegetables, while excellent supplements, are usually not, and should not be, staple foods because in too great a quantity they provide neither the roughage nor the combination of nutrients that elephants require.

In tourist camps the frequently met problem is that when fruits and vegetables (apart from sugarcane and bananas) grown for human consumption are bought, they are most often bought because they are being sold very cheaply because they are not saleable on the open market, being too old or too ripe or too green, etc. Consequently great care must be given when buying and feeding with fruits and vegetables.

Another problem is that fruits and vegetables are often contaminated with chemicals (herbicides, fertilizer residues, etc.).

Sugarcane and bananas are probably the two most common 'treats’ sold or given to tourists to feed to elephants. This frequency is partly because sugarcane and bananas are what tourists expect to give, and partly because they are easy to store and clean and easy to hold in the hand. Coincidentally, both sugarcane and bananas have very high nutritional value and can be considered high energy foods.

Pineapples have a very high sugar content. Elephants can eat all parts of the pineapple plant. Pineapples are good for exhausted elephants and elephants at hard work.


Cucumbers and water melon are sometimes fed to elephants, such as elephants in musth and, especially, elephants in cities.

Warning: Cucumbers and water melon are good food but the problem is with contaminants, which the mahout must be aware of. Soak cucumbers and water melons in a solution of clean water and potassium permanganate for 15-20 minutes before feeding.

Other fruits and vegetables are sometimes given, such as oranges, carrots, papayas, lettuce, cabbage, etc. These are not staple foods because they are quite expensive and are likely to be chemically contaminated. The mahout should give only a little bit first and then wait for 6-12 hours. If no ill effects are observed, more can be given.

Warning: Fruits and vegetable should be soaked in a solution of clean water and potassium permanganate for 15-20 minutes.

Potassium permanganate

Potassium permanganate is a chemical that comes in dark purple granules and is easy to dissolve in water. It is effective in killing some disease germs. Dissolve a little bit in clean water until the water turns pink. Use for cleaning vegetables and fruit and also for cleaning wounds. It can be bought in any pharmacy; it is cheap and easy to store.


Supplements are foods and substances that are normally given only to elephants which are out of condition, whether through illness, old age, being put to overly hard work, malnourishment, etc. Supplements can be divided into two groups, high energy foods and 'tonics’.

High energy foods

High energy foods are rarely given to healthy elephants, and never as a staple food, partly because they are expensive and partly because in large quantities they are very difficult to digest, owing to the elephant’s alimentary tract, which is designed for large quantities of coarse food with very low nutrient levels. In smaller amounts, however, these foods are excellent for sick elephants, overworked elephants, old elephants, etc. The reason is that all of these foods are very high in carbohydrates and calories, and some of them have good protein as well.

Unhusked rice has extremely high nutritional value and is appropriate for elephants at hard work and fattening up elephants underweight from insufficient food. No more than five kilograms should be given at a time because it is difficult to efficiently digest more.


Fresh maize [corn] is good food for elephants, especially for sick elephants, recuperating elephants, old elephants, nursing cows, etc., because it is has very high nutritional value.

Warning: Maize [corn] is a crop often contaminated by agricultural chemicals, as also are cucumbers and water melons. Therefore, the mahouts and managers must take counter measures, such as selecting maize [corn] from a trustworthy source and soaking the maize [corn] in a solution of clean water and potassium permanganate before feeding it to the elephant.

Pellet food for elephants in the past was the formula made for horses, but now some feed manufacturers are making mixes for elephants, normally with high nutritional value and thus suitable for exhausted and overworked elephants. Pellet food has not become a preferred food because it expensive compared to other foods.

Bananas, so long as they are ripe, are easily digestible and have high nutritional value and are thus suitable for sick elephants, calves, pregnant elephants, elephants at hard work, and old elephants.

Warning: Too many bananas cause smelly and watery dung.

Sugarcane has very high nutritional value and is thus suitable for elephants at hard work and for nursing mothers. Sugarcane should not be given to old elephants because it can cause teeth to break or even to fall out.

Warning: If fed too much or fed too often, sugarcane is likely to cause pain or even sores in the mouth.


Tonics are small quantities of some substance intended to have a specific effect, such as administering medicine, freeing bowels, stimulating thirst or appetite, etc.

Steamed sticky rice is not a tonic but is often used to administer drugs or food supplements. Give only.5-1 kilogram.

Warning: You should never give an elephant steamed sticky rice that is not fully cooked. Husked rice should never be given to elephants because it can cause constipation, even to the point of death.

Sticky tamarind is a good laxative and appetite stimulant. It makes elephants stronger and is appropriate for elephants that are suffering exhaustion after hard work. Usually it is mixed with salt.

Warning: If too much sticky tamarind is given it can cause diarrhoea. Do not give more than one kilogram.

Rock salt brings an increase in appetite if a salty solution is sprinkled over grass or if rock salt is mixed with sticky tamarind.

Warning: In the right amount, salt increases appetite but if too much is given it will make the elephant very thirsty and will cause intense salivation, glazed looking eyes, and staggering and unsure walking.

Mineral salts are the same as given to cattle and water buffalos. Before giving mineral salts to elephants it should be broken into small pieces or soaked in water. Give about once a month on average.

Herbal concoctions like Mong Pho Seng [brand name of a folk medicine] are often given to logging elephants in Northern Thailand. Such medicines are a good stimulant of appetite.

Warning: Giving too much can cause diarrhoea.

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