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: Last accessed 09.11.19.

Further references:

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: 

Saint Louis Zoo (2003-2019) See:

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


The rains brought their challenges, but also brought beauty. The grasses are growing and the trees that we planted earlier in the year are beginning to take root. Of particular joy is the way that the lotus has flourished. Under the guidance of P’Jinda we planted pink and white lotus plants in the ponds at Ban Ton Sae to enhance the environment making it a very Thai experience.

The lotus (bua in Thai) is important in the everyday life of the Thai people and is the traditional flower of Buddhism. Legend has it that when the Lord Buddha took his first steps, lotus blooms opened up to cushion the soles of his feet. With its roots in the mud, the plant rises above the dirty water to yield a flower of perfect beauty and purity. Indeed, for Buddhists, the flower stands for pureness of spirit and the flowers are widely used as offerings at shrines, in spirit houses and in the temple.

However, the lotus has many other uses. The roots, petals and stamens of some varieties are used by herbalists to treat a variety of complaints from fainting attacks to acne, and from the lowering of blood cholesterol to stomach upsets.  In fact, most of the lotus plant is edible. Some people will eat the raw seeds, others might boil up the dried seeds in syrup as a popular drink; moreover, the roots can be mixed with pork to make a delicious soup, and the leaves and stems of some species can be used in salads. The leaves are also used to wrap steamed rice, giving it a mild lotus fragrance; when fresh, the lotus leaves are useful as (biodegradable) wrappers. In the old days, dried lotus petals were used to roll cigarettes.

The lotus is undeniably beautiful and adds charm to the surroundings. We want the lotus to be visible part of our Thai world at Ban Ton Sae, where the Thai culture must never be forgotten.

For several decades, palm oil cultivation on a commercial scale in some south-east Asian countries has resulted in a very serious impact on the natural environment, causing widespread deforestation and loss of natural habitat and threatening critically endangered species such as the Asian elephant, orangutan, Sumatran tiger, gibbons, hornbills, and other organisms that are trying to survive in the wild.

Oil palms have been harvested by humans for over 5,000 years and palm oil has even been found in a tomb in Ancient Egypt dating back to 3,000 BC. But it was in the 19th century that palm oil suddenly became widely used in Europe and America as an industrial lubricant and cooking oil, and as the basis of many famous household products ranging from soap and toothpaste to ink and pizza dough. The oil comes from the red pulp of the fruits which are small and oval and grow in clusters of several hundred, close to the trunk on short heavy stalks. The fruit is black and red when ripe, and is fibrous and oily around a white kernel that is also rich in oils.

Because the oil palm trees produce fruit continuously throughout the year, with new bunches ripening each month, the fruit is always in season. A very sharp knife is used to cut off the fruit bunches. As the tree grows, it develops a very thick, distinctive scaly trunk, and large spreading crowns.

Nowadays in Thailand most of the oil palms are cultivated on smallholdings that practice sustainable cultivation. The picture is not so rosy in some other countries but at last big companies are coming under a lot of international pressure to ensure their palm oil production is sustainable. In some places, farmers, whose lives depend on the crops, will try to discourage elephants from eating their plantations and in extreme cases may even try to poison them.

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