A Fascinating insight into the history of Elephants in Thailand’s culture
In Thailand, elephants historically represent strength, loyalty and longevity. Today they feature in art, adverts, architecture and flags.
Their intelligence has long been associated with the enlightened Buddha, making them guardians of Earth. Thai records of elephants being domesticated (for combat) date to the 1200s, but this use somewhat faded between the 1500s and 1800s. They were subsequently used in logging, working to clear thick jungle where mechanisation was impossible. The elephants were ideally suited to this role and largely coped well with it, although sadly some were overworked and died prematurely.
The Thai government implemented a commercial logging ban in 1989, protecting forestry and helping save wild elephants from habitat loss, but this left 3,000 domesticated elephants that owners had to support financially and provide up to 250-300 kg of feed daily. The booming tourism industry provided employment opportunities, but too many elephants were mistreated and Kwan-changs (elephant carers) were generally underpaid. Ethical tourism is the best way to look after Kwan-changs and their families while caring for such elephants. Domesticated elephants are human-dependent, and it is very difficult to return them to the wild.
The Thai government Beasts of Burden Act 1939 designates captive elephants as ‘working animals’, so instead of being ‘rescued’ when they are being neglected or maltreated, they must be bought. This has caused problems in finding good homes but a lot of work is underway to raise education levels and establish proper training courses and standards for elephant care across Thailand. Tourism remains vital to conserve the Thai elephant population, which has fallen to around 10% of what it was 100 years ago, but it must be welfare driven.
A Kwan-chang has to understand his elephant’s behaviour, mood and health. It takes years to build a trusting bond, where each elephant responds to their Kwan-chang’s voice. Traditionally, Kwan-changs were paired 1-1 with elephants, often for life, and happily there are still some who want to do nothing else (see this short video clip here), but it is increasingly hard in the modern day to find enough young men able to devote a full career to this way of life. Also, some elephant camps provide poor working conditions and little training; here workers may not bond adequately with the elephants, leading to accidents and unnecessary abuse. Education and training is are therefore key.
The Thai government banned wild elephant capture and trade in 1992. Since 2015, captive elephants must be DNA registered. This guarantees their origin, preventing illegal trafficking. Environmental groups and the Thai Royal Family campaign for eco-friendly agriculture, helping protect the remaining forest. STEF will grow elephant food sustainably, using converted farmland.
Charities like STEF will provide free veterinary treatment for domesticated elephants. This is especially important as the ex-logging generation gets older. STEF aims to develop skilled Kwan-changs by supporting training and education, and to promote elephant welfare in the wider community by teaching about elephant care and the importance of conservation through breeding.
You can help STEF by: Donating – 100% of the money we receive goes towards the elephants; Visit Fundraising or promoting, or please e-mail email@example.com to find out about volunteering opportunities.
[This journal post is a summary of an article written by one of our Volunteers, Holly Collicott. For more information on elephant traditions in Thailand and ongoing conservation projects, please click here.]
Historical photos from Pixabay and Wikimedia
An Elephant’s Favourite Thing – Food!
Elephants are herbivores. This means that they have a plant-based diet and eat a lot. Read on to find out how these gentle giants make more than a meal from the surrounding plants of the jungle.
Because of their size and strength, it is perhaps surprising that elephants only eat plant material once weaned from their mother’s milk. Animal species that grow up to 3 to 5 tons (and sometimes more) and eat only plants are understandably very rare in the animal kingdom, because they need such huge amounts of this low-energy foodstuff in order to maintain their body size. Unsurprisingly, such animals are called ‘megaherbivores’. Asian elephants can consume 150 – 200 kg, or about 5% of their bodyweight every day. Not only is their diet low in energy, they only digest about 40% of what they consume, due to its highly fibrous nature. This all means elephants must spend two thirds of the time eating – around 16 hours a day.
Elephants like variety, however, and an individual can eat over 100 different plant species throughout the year, including grasses, leafy plants, sedges, woody plants, bark, fruits and flowers. As generalist feeders, their diet is flexible depending on what is available for the time of year and region. They are also selective grazers and are taught by their mothers to avoid plants that are toxic or might cause digestive disturbances.
Elephants have been observed learning what to eat during different seasons. For example, they preferentially eat grasses in the wet season, when grasses have higher protein levels. This intelligent feeding pattern also helps elephants build up their nutrient reserves, protecting themselves from seasonal fluctuations.
The volume and variety of plants elephants forage for makes them sort of ‘ecological engineers’; by digging for salts, they carve hills in the landscape. They also disperse seeds and fertilise them via digestion. They defecate an average of 16-18 times per day, and they can produce over 100 kg of dung daily.
This activity creates habitats and food sources for hundreds of other species to thrive. Asian elephants are a flagship species: by protecting them, we can protect whole ecosystems. Many human activities are reducing the food sources available for elephants; climate change is expected to increase severity of heavy rains and frequency of drought.
What about Captive Elephants?
Until at least they are one-year-old, elephants usually consume only their mother’s milk. This has lots of protein and fat which the baby elephants need to grow (by 1 kg per day). As their stronger second set of teeth develops, they begin eating solids, but continue relying on milk until they are two- to four-years-old. Foods grown for elephants include pineapple plants, sugarcane and banana leaves.
The concentrations of protein, minerals and vitamins in plant matter decrease with age, so it is important to feed elephants fresh material and also to allow them to freely browse diverse natural vegetation.
Find out more:
Elephant World. (2019). Elephant Feeding. Available: https://www.elephant-world.com/elephant-feeding/. Last accessed 09.11.19.
Phang Nga Elephant Park. (2015-2019). Asian Elephant Profile. Available: https://phangngaelephantpark.com/asian-elephant-profile/. Last accessed 09.11.19.
Koirala, R.K et al. (2016). Feeding Preferences of the Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) in Nepal. BMC Ecology. 16 (54).
Sukumar, R. (1993). Nutrition and Foraging. In: Eltringham, S.K et al The Asian Elephant: Ecology and Management. Cambridge: Cambridge Studies in Applied Ecology & Resource Management) (Cambridge Studies in Applied Ecology and Resource Management. p82-83.
Wild elephants roam hundreds of square kilometres searching for essential nutrients. With domesticated elephants it is very important to replicate this nutritional variation.
Like humans taking multivitamins, elephants can be kept healthy with nutrient supplements. Every elephant keeper has his own ideas about the best supplements, but they are often made from a mixture of ground feed pellets, containing minerals and vitamins, plus water so they are not too dry. Mashed bananas make them delicious and help to combine the mixture into balls, each weighing about 500g!
STEF has been teaching local Thai children about elephant welfare on its sponsored activity days at Phang Nga Elephant Park as part of our PLACE2C programme which we hope will empower children to learn about and work with elephants in ethical, sustainable ways in the future.
What do Elephants Need?
Wild elephants get much of their essential minerals through eating mineral-rich soil or digging for salt licks located on their foraging routes. These provide sodium and other minerals such as calcium and magnesium that are vital to their health.
Scientists agree that more studies are required into the mineral requirements of elephants, but here are a few of the minerals and vitamins that elephants need to keep them healthy. Here are some of the important nutrients and why they are vital for life:
|Nutrient:||Can be found in:||Some of the important roles:|
|For the proper function of the nervous system, the bioelectrical network behind movement and brain activity
As an essential electrolyte, to help ensure elephants absorb enough of the 200 L of water they drink daily, so maintaining blood pressure and hydration
|Iron||Grasses, leaves, twigs||A component of haemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen throughout the body. Oxygen is essential for life, breaking down sugars, releasing energy for growth, maintenance, repair and movement|
|Phosphorus||Leaves and grasses||Binds calcium to form bones and cartilage so any deficiency can lead to weakened bones and joints
Forms reactive components needed to break down sugars, releasing energy for growth, repair and movement
|Calcium||Bark, leaves, leguminous plants||Forms strong bones and cartilage so a deficiency can lead to bone and joint disease
Stimulates hormone secretion, immune defences, nervous activity for thinking and movement, muscle contraction for movement and heart activity, blood clotting at wounds
|Vitamin B||Made by a range of gut bacteria||Makes fatty insulation for nerves so they can transmit signals for thinking and movement
Maintains healthy skin ensuring good growth of foot-pads and toenails, so lessening chance of lesions and cracks which can impair mobility
|Vitamin E||Leaves and grasses||As an antioxidant, scavenges reactive metabolic products that can attack body tissues, protecting integrity and activity of the immune and nervous systems and muscles
Stimulates tissue repair and wound healing
What Must be Done Now?
Only 10% of forested elephant habitat remains in Thailand; most land is now dedicated to crops for human consumption which don’t meet elephants’ nutritional needs. At STEF, we grow elephant food sustainably on our land at Ban Ton Sae, near Phuket. Farming optimally-cultivated food for elephants needs to be encouraged, along with reduced use of pesticides and fertilisers.
Like humans, elephants have individual dietary needs and, like humans, some of them are just picky! Elephants support their development and changing activities by changing what they eat.
As elephants develop, their diet changes too. Young elephants need lots of energy-rich foods like sugarcane, which support their growth up to the age of around 30. Protein-rich foods like leguminous plants are also important for muscle growth. Minerals like calcium and phosphorus are also vital nutrients for growing, as they help form bones and teeth. Calcium stimulates body tissues to grow and secrete developmental hormones. Phosphorus triggers the digestive process, so that elephants can break down sugars they eat and release energy for growth. Phosphorus also forms part of an animal’s genetic code, DNA, which provides instructions the body needs to grow and develop. It is therefore especially important that young elephants eat lots of calcium-rich foods like bark and leguminous plants, as well as plants high in phosphorus.
Pregnant or nursing elephants need extra energy and protein-rich foods for the bodily changes they undergo to support their growing offspring. As with young elephants, they need elevated levels of phosphorus to ensure that the extra sugars they eat are digested. Calcium is also vital to support bodily growth and hormone secretion during a long pregnancy of 22 months. Calcium also triggers the muscle contractions needed for a successful labour. Finally, calcium and phosphates provide key nutrients in the milk they produce, supporting healthy growth of their calves. Calcium, phosphorus and many othernutrients can be topped up with dietary supplements.
Food is a priority for male elephants when they enter a period called ‘musth’. This is when they are ready to breed, as testosterone in the blood increases by up to 40 times its normal level! In order to produce such high levels of this hormone, these elephants need extra protein, which can be provided in leguminous plants. They also need lots of energy-rich foods like sugarcane in order to fuel their activity in pursuing a mate.
Older elephants, who are on their sixth and last set of teeth, need a softer diet than most. Starvation is sadly one of the most common natural causes of death in wild elephants; as their teeth are lost, so is their ability to eat. However, good chaangs (carers) will often mash up their food for them and limit their consumption of tough, woody materials like sugarcane. Moreover, woody plants can be beneficial in an elephant’s diet; they help clean and work out old teeth, making room for new sets. Kwan chaangs should check their elephants’ teeth daily and monitor their natural wear and health. Finally, all elephants have personal preferences, just like humans. Some are very fussy – especially teenagers – and throw away perfectly good bananas or pineapples for being too green or leafy!
What future developments could improve captive elephant nutrition?
By analysing biochemical compositions, specific plant species could be identified with high concentrations of key nutrients.
By analysing regular blood samples from elephants in our laboratory, we will also be able to optimise diets for their individual needs.
Find out more:
International Plant Nutrition Institute. (1999). Phosphorus in Animal Nutrition. Better Crops With Plant Food. 83 (1), p32-33.
Phang Nga Elephant Park. (2015-2019). Appearance and Intelligence. Available: https://phangngaelephantpark.com/appearance-and-intelligence/. Last accessed 09.11.19.
Association of Zoos & Aquariums (2012). AZA Standards for Elephant Management and Care. 2nd ed. USA: Association of Zoos & Aquariums. p28.
Koirala, R.K et al. (2019). The Effects of Age, Sex and Season on the Macronutrient Composition of the Diet of the Domestic Asian Elephant. Journal of Applied Animal Research. 47 (1), 5-16.
van Baarlen, I; Gerritsen, M (2012). Elephant Nutrition in Dutch Zoos. The Netherlands: University of Applied Sciences.
Digestive problems are extremely dangerous in both wild and captive elephants – did you know that something that seems as ‘ordinary’ as constipation or diarrhoea can kill an elephant? Read on to see why…
For any elephant, maintaining a healthy digestive system is not easy, but it is so important. Because of their plant-based diet, elephants need a healthy gut, containing a range of helpful microbes which slowly digest plant fibre (cellulose). This produces fatty acids, which the elephant can absorb for energy. If an elephant eats too much fibrous material at once, this can slow digestion so much that it can diminish appetite and prevent them from eating enough.
If an elephant eats lots of starchy foods like bananas, these are digested very quickly, producing excess gas which can bloat and damage the gut and cause constipation. It is also very uncomfortable and can cause a lot of pain. It is a bit like some forms of colic in horses, and also occurs in ruminants like cattle and goats. It can be fatal, so it is vital to provide a balance of tough, fibrous foods and only give bananas and other easily-digested foods as a treat.
With captive elephants, colic can also be caused by feeding too many or badly formulated supplements or pellet balls, and also by internal parasites, or sudden changes to either diet (upsetting gut bacteria) or routine (upsetting the elephant). Elephant care is a challenge requiring complete dedication, observation and sensitivity.
Caring for domestic elephants:
Kwan-chaangs (elephant carers, also known by the Hindi word ‘mahout’) need to ensure that bananas or pellet balls are fed sparingly and that a variety of roughage is available for their elephants to slowly graze on throughout the day. This mimics an elephant’s natural feeding strategy. If changes to diet or routine are necessary, these have to be phased in over several weeks, while kwan-chaangs monitor their elephants’ stance, body condition and mood to ensure they are comfortable. Kwan-chaangs should also inspect their elephants’ faeces daily – it is not a particularly glamorous job, but this helps detect early signs of digestive disturbance or infection.
It is important for elephants to be allowed to roam freely and get plenty of exercise to stimulate motility in the gut and keep their metabolisms working. It also helps keep them in shape – a big concern surrounding captive elephants is overfeeding. Obesity can lead to overheating problems, joint problems, inflammation of the toenails, reduced mobility and infertility, so, once again, sugary foods like bananas must be given as treats only. Elephants can actually be weighed regularly (there are special measuring tapes and formulae for doing this) – the healthy range is about 2500-5000 kg for adult females and 3500-6000 kg for adult males.
Each kwan-chaang should also inspect his elephant’s dental health daily, which requires a very trusting relationship! Elephants have six sets of teeth throughout their life. They must eat enough fibrous roughage to naturally wear down each set and work out old teeth to make room for the new ones.
Find out more:
Phang Nga Elephant Park (2015-2019). Appearance and Intelligence. See: https://phangngaelephantpark.com/appearance-and-intelligence/
Saint Louis Zoo (2003-2019) See: https://www.stlzoo.org/animals/abouttheanimals/mammals/asianelephant/elephantedibles
Association of Zoos & Aquariums (2012). AZA Standards for Elephant Management and Care. 2nd ed. USA: Association of Zoos & Aquariums. p28.
Hatt, J.M; Clauss, M. (2006). Feeding Asian and African Elephants in Captivity. International Zoo Yearbook. 40 (Elephants and Rhinoceros), 88-95.
Hile, E.M., Hintz, H.F., Hollis, N. (1997). Predicting body weight from body measurements in Asian elephants (Elephas maximas). Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine 23, 205-210
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