Our vision for the future of Thailand’s captive elephants

Posted by on Feb 12, 2017 in All Things Veterinary Medicine

Our vision for the future of Thailand’s captive elephants

This week, I had the pleasure of traveling to the Surin Elephant Kingdom of Thailand, specifically to the village of Ba Ta Klang with our team, photographers Dr. Don and Kim Toothman, Dr. Boripat, Dr. Joy, and Dr. Som from the Zoological Parks Organization (ZPO) and John Roberts, Director of Elephants and Conservation Activities for Anantara resorts. With everyone contributing an important yet different role to our shared project, I am optimistic for the future of Thailand’s elephants.

Allow me to provide some background, about 10 years ago her Majesty the Queen requested ZPO to oversee the management of 200 captive Asian elephants. Up until a few years ago, Thailand had a serious street begging problem with their elephants, where they would go into the streets at night and get their pictures taken and be given all types of non-elephant food for a small fee. Elephants died, or got badly injured from car crashes, suffered from malnourishment and her Majesty couldn’t bare it, so she worked with the Royal Forestry Department to designate 1200 acres of land to be used specifically for elephants to get off the streets and return to their homelands. Mahouts (elephant keepers) have been given a monthly wage to look after their elephant.

But to understand the current situation, one must go back even further. For hundreds of years Thai elephants were used for different purposes including warfare, plowing fields, transport and then logging. Elephants were revered, and sent back to the forest to live in the wild until they were needed again for work.  In the last century, when logging became the main industry, they ironically logged 95% of Thailand’s forest, destroying their home. Their lifestyle was slowly modified to where they spent most of their non-working time on chains, some still were able to go to the forest, but on a chain. It was not thought that e

Young elephant shackled and chained Photo credit: Dr. Scarlett Magda

Young elephant shackled and chained
Photo credit: Dr. Scarlett Magda

lephants could be safe spending time close to each other because in reality, they can be quite dangerous! These are wild animals remember? Elephants were not  bred in captivity until about the last couple of decades and in order for an animal domesticated, it must be bred in captivity for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Horses for example, were domesticated around 3000 BC, and dogs around 13000 BC.  

Some say one in three captive Asian elephants will kill you, the second is unpredictable and the third is your friend. So it is understandable why elephants are trained

Dr. Boripat, John Roberts and Dr. Scarlett taking a break

Dr. Boripat, John Roberts and Dr. Scarlett taking a break

and treated the way they are here in Asia. When I meet an elephant, and the mahout (elephant keeper) says he or she is dangerous, it is not a strange question for me to ask how many people this elephant has killed.I met an elephant once in India that killed 13 people.

After logging was banned in 1989, elephants lost their jobs overnight and the tourism industry emerged with a variety of performance shows, riding and hotel activities like greeting tourists or taking money for a trick. Mahouts did not have the means or know how to start these businesses necessarily, so many elephants were purchased by wealthy businessmen who knew little about elephant keeping and management, but they knew how to make money. Over time, new mahouts needed to be recruited, but these businessmen would pay very little, thus the social status and morale of the mahout went down. There is a real alcohol and drug abuse problem amongst mahouts and it is really tragic. These incredible men and now women who devote their lives to caring for the most revered animal in the country, are making about $300 US dollars a month, not respected in society, and the money just isn’t enough to feed their elephants, never mind support their families. So what you now have is a complicated issue of undervalued mahouts with low self-esteem caring for potentially dangerous animals. Thus naturally, the art of elephant keeping has deteriorated, and mahouts have resorted to more and more cruel methods of handling and treatment, misusing tools like the bull hook, and when they get killed, another mahout will often beat that elephant in retaliation only making that elephant more aggressive, thus worsening the cycle. The story is much more deeper and complex than this, but this is my current understanding of it.

 Vets International does not condemn the people they are trying to help, but rather, we take the time to build trust and find the best native partners on the ground who have a shared vision, and work from within.  We build strong strategic partnerships working at both a grass-roots and sometimes government level, so we can make make a difference locally and nationally. Our Asian elephant vet care program has partnered with the ZPO, whose new management cares deeply about the elephants and community of Surin, and with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation of Anantara Resorts, run by John Roberts. John is passionate about educating the next generation of mahouts, offering English lessons, and his foundation has committed to fund the salary of the Mobile Elephant Clinic veterinarian, as he or she will be required to give lessons on animal husbandry and animal empathy in the local schools.

 The reason for this interdisciplinary approach is because many of our vet calls deal with improper husbandry, poor management and concern for animal welfare, so we must look at the root of the problem and find appropriate partners to help…. so we aren’t just treating wounds for the net 100 years with no decrease in caseload or welfare improvements!

Tourists bathing elephants

Tourists bathing elephants

It’s not all doom and gloom here in Surin, there are some changes happening already. It was inspiring to see tourists walk with elephants and spend time bathing them in the river. Mahouts will slowly realize they are being paid to do simple activities that improve the welfare of their elephants.



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