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Thai elephants, Elephas maximus


A short essay on Thai Elephants by Courtney


The elephant used to be the national symbol of Thailand. The country is still famous for them and we all see pictures of Thai elephants in the wild and carrying tourist on trekking holidays. We see them in movies, elephant masks and sculptures in shops, Thailand's wats (temples) are adorned with elephant figures and they feature in stories and in history books.

But what is the fate of elephants in Thailand today? We found that few people know much about Thailand's elephant population, so we decided to do some research.

This essay explains what we have found. The story is not altogether a happy one and I have spared you some of the details. I hope you will take a few minutes to read this and gain a little more understanding.


There are two different species of elephant - the African Loxodonta africana and the Asian Elephas maximus. The African elephant is larger and there are a few distinct differences, most notably the Asian’s smaller ears. There is a number of sub-species and races within the Asian elephant species:

Indian Elephant (E. m. indicus)

Sri Lankan Elephant (E. m. maximus)

Sumatran Elephant (E. m. sumatrensis)

Borneo Elephant (E. m. borneensis)


Thai Elephants Thai Elephant

The Asian elephant population in Laos and Vietnam is being researched to determine if it is a fifth subspecies. Additionally, two extinct elephant subspecies are believed to have existed: The Chinese population E. m. rubridens (pink-tusked elephant) disappeared after the 14th century BC and the Syrian Elephant E. m. asurus, the largest and westernmost subspecies, became extinct around 100 BC.

The elephants in Thailand are members of the Indian subspecies, but may be considered a separate race with distinct differences. Members of the Indian race are bigger, have longer front legs and have a thinner body than those belonging to the Thai race .

The African elephant population is estimated at around 500,000 whilst Asian elephant numbers have fallen to a disturbingly low estimated figure of below 30,000. At the start of the 20th century Thailand had over 100,000 Asian elephants; today there are probably around 4,000 of which only 1,500 live in the wild. Although these are very low numbers and they have been decreasing slowly in recent years, the population appears to be reasonably stable for now. They are officially classified as an endangered species.

So let’s take a look at the animal itself. Of all the mammals living on this planet, the elephant has a life cycle that most closely matches that of humans, apart from its gestation period of 22 months. From birth until the age of 4-5 years, the elephant is totally dependent on its mother's milk for nourishment and survival. The baby elephant will normally feed from its own mother, but other cows in a herd often help to look after other’s youngsters. If the real mother dies then these ‘aunts’ will look after and raise the orphan. The cow’s milk provides vital nutrients, particularly calcium, and antibodies needed to build up the calf's immunity. For this reason, elephant calves that are weaned too early and separated from the mother before 3 years of age often suffer from bone disease and seldom survive.

Until around 14 years of age, the elephant is an adolescent and from then until 60, they are classed as working adults. The average life expectancy of an elephant is 65 years, often limited by the life span of their teeth. Molars (grinding teeth) are at least 30 cm long and weigh about 4 kg each. An elephant has only four of these teeth at any one time. New molars develop at the back of the mouth and push the old ones forward and out, thus replacing old, worn teeth. An elephant usually grows six sets of molars in a life-time; the final set grows when it is about 40 years of age and when these decay or become worn, the elephant finds it hard to eat and subsequently a great many are likely to die of starvation.

Males elephants have tusks up to 1.8m in length; female elephants do not have tusks at all. Milk tusks grow to just 5cm long and are shed before the calf reaches its second birthday; permanent tusks then begin to grow. Tusks are in fact teeth (incisors) and are made of ivory. They are used to dig for food, clear debris and to fight; they can be used to carry heavy loads, such as timber, weighing up to 1 tonne. Unlike their molars, tusks never stop growing throughout the elephant’s life.

In spite of being the largest land animal (a bull elephant can stand 2.7m high and weigh up to 5 tonnes), the elephant's health is relatively fragile. Like humans, elephants are susceptible to all sorts of viral and bacterial infections. Although the adult elephant's skin is 2.5cm thick, they often suffer from sunburn, dry skin and a number of skin diseases.

An elephant's senses of balance, hearing and smell are excellent. Unless mistreated, an elephant is gentle and careful around people and is very loyal to its mahout; the mahout is the person who cares for and drives an elephant. Elephants’ favourite foods include bananas, sugar cane, wild rice, berries, coconuts, mangoes and pineapples – all useful cash and subsistence crops for man. They are often fed bread in zoos and have developed a taste for this type of food. Some elephants will actually peel fruit or thrash sugar cane and bamboo to tenderize it before eating it; the revered white elephant will eat nothing off the ground. Elephants only sleep for about 5 hours each night, mostly standing like horses, with maybe an hour or two in deep slumber, lying on its side.

An elephant's trunk is, arguably, the most versatile of all animal organs with great strength and dexterity; it can be used to lift a 600 kg log or to pick up a single, small coin. It contains no bones and contains maybe 100,000 muscles, making it very adaptable. It grows up to 2 metres long and weighs around 140 kg. An elephant's trunk has a small finger-like tip, which can distinguish size, texture, shape and temperature. An elephant uses its trunk to feed and drink by bringing food and water to its mouth, breathe, make noises, caress its young and sometimes even fight. When totally submerged in water the trunk can also be used as a snorkel. An adult elephant's trunk can hold six litres of water and hot elephants can be seen using their trunks as flexible shower hoses. It is a superb organ of smell, and can be directed easily toward the source.


Asian Elephants generally live in or near scrub-forested areas; they can live in jungle, but prefer areas that contain open space and grass. All elephants are nomadic by nature and do not stay in one location for more than a few days. The natural habitat for wild herds in Thailand has been severely reduced; forest has been cleared for the timber trade or to make way for agriculture or urban development. This encroachment means that interaction between wild elephants and humans has become more frequent and is normally bad news – a family of elephants can clear a farmer’s crop in one night of foraging. The main threats to wild Asian elephants include:

Habitat loss – logging, development and agriculture

Disease – viral and bacterial infections

Natural disasters – drought, flood, fire

Human-elephant conflict – retribution for crop-raiding

Ivory poaching – fortunately most Thai elephants do not have tusks

Hunting – for sport!

Capture – more efficient than captive breeding

Isolation of small populations

Only wild elephants have any legal protection in Thailand, leaving the vast majority of Thai elephants vulnerable to abuse and neglect by their owners. That said, Thailand's wild elephant population are most certainly highly vulnerable and at risk from human activity.

Thai Elephants

Thai Elephant


Thai elephant, Elephas maximus
Thai Elephant at Kinnaree Elephant Snantuary - Phuket

For the domestic Thai elephants, things are little better. There has been a huge change in the work that these elephants do; transportation (of goods and of people in remote, inaccessible areas) has not provided significant employment for many decades. The Thai government banned logging in 1989 when extreme deforestation led to major flooding and mud slides that killed 350 people. Following the ban, there was some illegal logging, but this has been almost entirely eradicated through ingenious means; trees were adorned with strips of Buddhist saffron cloth, each representing the soul of a person. To cut down one of these trees is a religious taboo that would insult the spirit and bring extreme retribution.

Elephant training skills in the country have traditionally been passed down through the generations. Training methods are often very harsh, to say the least. Moreover, of the hundreds of elephants that became unemployed by the demise of the timber industry, many were simply abandoned by their owners.

The main forms of Thai elephants' employment today are tourism and cultural events such as festivals, religious processions and historical recreations. Despite the opinion that domestic elephants would probably survive well if released, there is nowhere near enough remaining habitat for these domestic elephants to be released into the wild.

Keeping elephants demands intensive human care, each elephant requiring one or two full-time mahouts. An adult elephant needs some 200 kilograms of food and 150 litres of water per day – even more for a full grown bull. The mahouts are generally poor villagers who need to provide for their own families. For these reasons domestic elephants need to generate income; funds to support themselves and their mahouts.

Today Thailand has more than 50 elephant camps of various sizes, holding nearly 1,500 domestic elephants. The main activity in these camps is trekking, a good source of income, and visitors are encouraged to buy food for the elephants, mostly pineapples, bananas and sugarcane. To many visitors, the highlight of their trip is the experience of seeing and touching (and smelling) a real elephant.

Arts and entertainment produced by elephants has become increasingly diverse and imaginative. In 1998 the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Thailand became the first of several camps to teach some of its elephants to paint pictures; considered by many to be viable art, a number of paintings by elephants were successfully sold at auction by Christies in New York. Even more creatively, the same centre created the Thai Elephant Orchestra, the world's first animal musicians dedicated to making serious music!

Generally speaking, life for the Thai elephants in the camps is good; they are properly fed, watered and cared for. Obviously some camps are better than others. But for many of the other elephants, those not in the camps, life can be far less satisfactory. Many are owned by very poor people with little knowledge of the animals’ needs and who lack the resources to care for them properly. For the past 30 years or more, many elephants have been used for begging in the streets of Bangkok, selling trinkets and food. These animals live in poor conditions, are constantly startled by traffic and lack the company of their own kind. Fortunately, the authorities have now cracked-down on this and there have been a number of confiscations. However, there still remain a lot of elephants in poor conditions.


Veterinary care for Thai elephants has greatly improved; with the support of a number of government agencies and NGOs, virtually all Thai elephants can receive excellent veterinary treatment, often free of charge. The National Elephant Institute was founded by the Forest Industry Organization to serve as a centre for ideas and action, including drafting new laws and taking local action. Many regions have established organizations to help their own local elephants. The Royal Forest Department, with the help of sponsorship, employ many of the privately-owned elephants in the national parks, assisting with patrolling and offering trekking to visitors.

It is heartening to note that the Thai public, once blissfully unaware of the plight of the country’s elephants, is now well motivated in helping to protect their beloved national animals. Most Thai elephant owners have always extended humane treatment, but now more than ever they are made aware that they are caretakers for a national treasure, not just their own private property. While constant vigilance is most certainly called for, the future of the Asian elephant in Thailand is starting to look brighter.

Here's a short illustrative video about Thai elephants.




The main factor influencing Thai elephants is human encroachment upon their habitat - the fast growing human population in Asia competes with the wildlife for land and resources and wild elephants pose a threat to farmers’ crops leading to confrontation. Additionally, because it takes a long time (14 years) to raise an elephant to working age, it is more efficient to capture older elephants from the wild than it is to breed in captivity. These and a number of other factors have led to a shocking decline in elephant populations. Around 4,000 elephants remain in Thailand, fewer than 1,500 in the wild and maybe 300 living in the cities in appalling conditions. Many elephants often suffer brutal treatment, firstly to train them and then because their owners are too poor and lacking in knowledge of these magnificent animals to give them proper care.

However, things are slowly improving and the government and conservation organisations are doing a lot to improve the lives of Thailand’s elephants. Elephant camps offer sanctuary and work for domestic animals and national parks offer employment for many privately owned elephants. Veterinary care is available throughout the country, without charge for those that cannot afford it for their animals.

project ocean vision, Thai elephant, Elephas maximus


What does this mean to us and what can we do about it? I have heard many people stating that we should avoid elephant trekking camps and shows because this encourages the capture and brutal training of elephants. However, in my view the elephants are already there and have a home, providing better conditions than would otherwise be the case. The elephant camps rely on tourism to pay for the elephants’ upkeep and the mahouts and their families depend on them for their livelihood. So should we go? Well, on balance, I would say yes, but do a bit of research first and go to ones that care for their animals and do not exploit them.

P.S. Daniela Dietze has recently sent us a link to a piece of video about elephants on You Tube, a trailer for a shocking and brilliantly made documentary http://youtu.be/BeBwe7yTw7o. You should watch this and see the article at www.rattlethecage.org/node/47. Thank you for contacting us Daniela.

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