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 three-headed elephant, Bangkok

Statue of three-headed elephant with the God Indra, in Bangkok

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.

Logging with elephant

Elephants were used for logging in Thailand until it was banned

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.

converting land for elephants

Land at Ban Ton Sae being planted for elephant habitat


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 info@southernthailandelephants.org to find out about volunteering opportunities.

chairman of STEF

Dr Andrew Higgins, Chairman of STEF

[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.

Further References:

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:
Sodium Soil,

salt deposits

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 Klok Kloi, near Phuket. Farming optimally-cultivated food for elephants needs to be encouraged, along with reduced use of pesticides and fertilisers.