My 6 Weeks as an Elephant Vet – Week two

A blog by veterinary volunteer Vanessa Klabouch, a vet student at TiHo Hannover

STEF Veterinary Centre


Yesterday we welcomed two new volunteers from Korea to STEFT. We instantly got along, and this morning on the way to our first patient while talking we arrived way faster in Phuket than expected. We went to Phuket Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.

Tong Dee needed our help today.  A 76-year-old female elephant, already blind in both eyes and with skin fungus all over her body. The first sight was terrifying. However, we haven’t been called because of that, the old lady is  already being treated for the fungus.

Not much is known about the normal fungal flora, and fungal infections are not often mentioned in literature and seem to be rare in Elephant. None of the common dermatophytes in pets are reported in elephants, Scopulariopsis sp., Trichothecium sp., and Aspergillus sp. have been isolated, and Streptomyces keratolytica, are associated with lesions of the feet caused by parasites. But as with dogs such therapy can take a long time, especially with an animal with so much surface area. There are no studies about antifungal drugs. First, a skin sample should be taken and sent in to ensure correct treatment and then you have to be patient, it can take years until full recovery.


Tong Dee

She is blind

Skin fungus

Today, we were supposed to treat Tong Dee’s cracked nail and the fact that she has not been laying down to sleep for up to two weeks. At first, we assumed that the foot problem was so severe that it prevented her from laying down. But after cleaning and checking for pain, this didn’t seem plausible any longer. In addition, an edema could be seen in the abdominal area. 

Dr Aon took blood and gave an infusion. She trimmed the nail from the sides to the middle to take the weight off this area and to prevent the nail from breaking even more. The foot pad had to be trimmed from underneath but our friend wasn’t very interested in standing still!

Dr  Aon advised the mahout (elephant keeper) to trim just a little bit every day in the same way she had done, and we would come back for a check-up later. Until then we hope to get more information from the blood results to understand the case better.

As mentioned last week, cracks can appear for many reasons. With Tong Dee it has to be mentioned that the elephant is overweight and her diet consists of pellets, rice, red beans, bananas, pineapples, banana and pineapple tree, pumpkins and grass….. 

Nail crack

Treating Tong Dee

If you think about how a wild elephant is only eating jungle vegetation the whole day while walking, Tong Dee’s diet has way too much energy.  A nutritional imbalance could be a reason and is maybe comparable to the white-line disease in horses.  Before we left we gave her some painkillers and when we return (with the blood results), we will provide antibiotics (to prevent resistances.)


Why are the elephants often chained during treatment? 

Many of my friends have been asking why the poor elephants are chained at the hospital and in the field, and I am sure you are thinking the same thing. I therefore thought I should write a bit about this….

Did you ever have a dog or cat that was afraid of going to the vet, that started biting or scratching, and wanted to get away as fast as possible? 

Even if you work hard and keep on doing medical training some of our pets simply hate seeing the vet. But there are methods to control our furry friends and a muzzle or neck grip can be used if nothing else works, to allow vets to treat them. 

But an elephant isn’t that easy to control, you can’t just hold their legs or lay on them, this won’t help at all. Vets could sedate elephants, but this is not ideal for a tiny treatment, so the decision to chain them during treatment is made to ensure the safety of the vets and any onlookers.  

This is not a guaranteed safety method though, and the job of the STEFT vets is dangerous. Even a chained Elephant could easily hurt you if they panic. 

Of course, there are some well-trained ones you can just approach but as soon as an elephant is in pain it can get more aggressive. This is especially true of elephants in sanctuaries if they are kept  in huge enclosures without much human contact. These are the hardest to treat. And that’s why we need chains to have a chance to help a sick elephant and for our own safety.


Botany lesson at STEFT 

Today we didn’t get a single case. No call, no control, it seems all the elephants are healthy, so there is nothing for us do.  After breakfast, we went on a hike with the intention of getting to know some Thai plants. Of course, the focus was on the eating behaviour of our patients. The path was informative and fun but at the same time exhausting because it got quite steep. We walked from one tree to the next and up the mountain until we realized that Den wanted to show us the view from up there. At the top, we discovered a concrete beam and of course, I encouraged everyone to climb it for a group photo. What I didn’t know was that Fang is afraid of heights and the other two aren’t climbing monkeys either! It was probably a lot more amusing for Den, who watched us and had a good laugh. Very gentleman-like, he helped with the ascent and took the pictures for me.

Rain Tree

Elephants can eat any part of this tree and love scratching their back in it.

Fishtail plant

Elephants eat the leaves and branches. They can get constipation from eating too much. 

Oil Palm

Elephants do not eat this. 

Behind the scenes

Enjoying the view! 


The leaves are given to elephants with digestive problems. 


Elephants like this plant, but it makes them thirsty. 

Thai oil tree

It’s proper name is Choerospondias axillaris. Elephants eat the fruit, shown here. 

Forest Banana Tree

Elephants eat all of this. 

Elephant Ear

Surprisingly, elephants don’t eat any of this. 

Meremia umbellate

Elephants love this flower, but it does cause colic. 

Salak Palm Tree

Elephants eat the fruit. 

Back at the hospital, we spent the afternoon preparing for the next day, as we were called to check up on at least 15 elephants. With the size of these animals, there is plenty to pack to ensure you are prepared for everything. You never know what to expect. Counting and packing the vitamin tablets was particularly fun, a hundred per go, it’s easy to get confused, especially when Fang comes around with some exciting Elephant facts and you completely forget where you were! 

The perfect finale was at the sea today, we watched the sunset again and filled our bellies with Thai delicacies. If you have never tried Thai tea-flavoured ice cream – this is a must!


I don’t even know where to start today. We went to Krabi, a two-hour drive, 5 stations, 24 elephants, 18 female, 6 male including two young individuals.

Today I’m picking up three interesting cases instead of boring you 24 times with a general examination, chips and so on. Our stops were: The Elephant Sanctuary Krabi, Ao Nang Elephant Park, Ao Nang Elephant Sanctuary. 

Something in general first. All elephants that had not just been dewormed, received deworming and vitamin B, young animals (up to 10 years) vitamin C and old ones a combined vitamin preparation. 

The vitamin C for young Elephants is given as a standard to strengthen the immune system, since the maternal antibodies become fewer with age and their own have to be built up. Special attention is paid to this due to EEHV. It is a type of herpesvirus, which can cause an often fatal haemorrhagic disease in young Asian elephants (and African as well). You can read more about EEHV here

In Thailand there are mainly type 1, 1a, 1b and 4. We can now detect EEHV at the hospital. First you have to extract the DNA and after this you can work with the real time PCR. It’s a tiny high-tech machine that can connect with your smartphone. It’s crazy! Read more about the PCR here. 

Unloading supplies

Krabi Elephant Shelter, Tham Sue Elephant Camp

Hello little one

Comparing their hair!

So cute!

Have you ever been close to a young elephant and realized how much hair they have?

Compare these two beauties. The Baby is so hairy.

Elephants hair cannot grow back once it is torn or broken off. Unfortunately, some elephants do not lose it naturally, as it is plucked from them to make jewellery such as rings and necklaces. It’s very stable, but as I said it will not grow back. Sometimes, even eyelashes are used for jewellery, which results in tearful, inflamed eyes as the eyelashes represent a natural protection which the eyes needs. 

Body Condition Score (BCS) is also an exciting topic. I think its sometimes difficult, depending on the species. I am fine with farm animals, dogs, cats etc. But if gets complicated with fluffy animals, birds, reptiles etc to classify. But what about elephants?!

To the right is a great example. Here we can see a BCS 1.5 vs 4.5.

There are different score systems, that means you first have to know if you scale from one till five or till ten. We use 1-5 and ribs, pelvic bone, spine and skull as landmarks. 

  • In BCS 5 none of these are visible,
  • in 4 the ribs are not visible, the pelvic bone can be seen as a slight definition but not entirely visible and has a slight sunken or flattened area in front, the spine is visible as a ridge;
  • BCS 3 the ribs are not visible, the pelvic bone is visible but not entirely with a slight depression in front of it, the spine is visible from the tail to the shoulder;
  • BCS 2 some ribs may be seen but appear to be covered by thin fat layer, the pelvic bone is clearly visible with an obvious depression in front or behind, the spine is prominent from tail to shoulder with an obvious depression alongside;
  • BCS 1 the individual ribs are clearly visible, pelvic bone is protruding, deep depression in front and behind, and the spine protruding from tail to shoulder with a deep depression alongside.

Pregnant or Bloated?!

This one is a trap! This elephant is not fat, pregnant or bloated. Just stuffed! It enjoys food so much, it doesn’t stop eating. This is a food belly! 

To top off a long and eventful day, when we arrived back at the STEF veterinary centre the generator wasn’t working so there was no electricity. We had to pack our things in the dark and head to Phang Nga Elephant Camp, where we could stay the night. It’s all part of the Thailand adventure!

I am really looking forward to tomorrow morning, when we will get to drive the elephants out of the forest and down into the facility at 7am.

As always, we are well accommodated at Phang Nga. Off to bed, ready for tomorrows adventure.


This morning we quickly got ready and went to the kitchen to grab some coffee before heading out into the forest. It was a beautiful little walk up the hill, Thailand’s nature is so special with all the lianas and little flowers everywhere, especially in the morning light.

Nam Tam (5 years old)

Nam Tam and Chana

In a small clearing, Chana and Nam Tan the Elephant Calf were standing. It was the cutest thing I have ever seen.

The Calf was a mix of grumpy and hungry because we woke it up, just like all babies would be. But elephant babies are making the most amazing sounds when they are in that mood. I had been so immersed in it that I forgot to record the sounds, but it was a mix of roaring, flopping the trunk to the ground, and squeaky sounds.

We walked them down, fed them and then they went for their morning swim. 

Later we got picked up by Fang (The Volunteer Coordinator at STEF Thailand) and went to the Royal Thai Navy See Turtle Conservation at Thai Mueang. Due to the rapidly declining populations, they care for the clutch and hatchlings, raising these little cuties until the age of 6 months, when they will be released back into the ocean. 

Visiting the turtles

Today we also got to watch elephants and learn about their behaviour at Phang Nga Elephant Park. We observed the basics of their body language:

  • First the ears: don’t worry if the ears are flapping, the elephant is cooling itself down with some help from the wind. They are lowering the blood temperature in the huge vessels going through the ears and with this the whole body temperature. Instead, you should worry if they hold their ears straight to the side, especially if they are holding their head up and pointing the tusks towards you, they are trying to look bigger and intimidate you. Stay away and move slowly backward.
  • Second the eyes: due to Adrenalin the eyes widen when an animal is stressed, scared, or excited. If he approaches with relaxed, maybe half-closed eyes you will be fine.
  • The tail: if it’s swinging from one side to another he is chasing away flies, but if he holds it stiff to one side he is afraid, maybe he will even run away. In any case, if an elephant is running towards you just get quickly out of its way.
  • The rumbling and trumpet sounds are a little harder to understand: most of the time elephants make infrasound that we are not able to hear. But they are often communicating with a low rumbling sound, it’s one of my favourites, relax and enjoy! A trumpet instead is usually not a good sign, a sign of riot, even if a baby is doing it, be careful that the mom is not chasing you away.
  • Two points you have to be aware of with the males are urine and temporal gland excretions. It shows that the Elephant is in musth and a huge amount of testosterone is going through its body which makes them highly aggressive and unpredictable.

In every case, always listen to the Mahouts, they know their animals so much better than we could.


Yesterday we went to Kho Lanta. We left at 7am and finally got back to the hospital at 8pm. A very tiring day but we had so much to see along the way. I actually slept the first bit until the ferry, but the crossing was great. The mangrove forests and small islands were beautiful to look at. 

On the island, we went from camp to camp, once across the whole island, a piece of paradise. We treated a total of 15 elephants over 6 stages. All organizations are structured very differently, from riding to bathing, and feeding to simply observing them in peace.

All the elephants were in good condition – some even too good! In the sanctuaries the love for elephants is often expressed by quite a few delicacies, and since the elephants don’t have to work there, there are some fat ones among them!

Due to the number of elephants, I am already familiar with the standard steps, as the general examination and preventive care are concerned, and even the diseases are sometimes repeated, which always brings small successes day by day.

We did deworming, which is done every 4 months, gave vitamins, as well as other supplements for the older ones, and vitamin C for those under 10 years old.


On the Ferry

Around the Island

Hello gorgeous one

We had one or two small wounds to treat, two abscesses that needed no action, and strange holes caused by parasites. Since we didn’t see any, we could only speculate that it could be a species of gadfly. They suckle elephants blood and lay their eggs, the larvae bury themselves into the skin, go through different stages of development and break up through the skin again after this. They drop to the ground and become the adult version.  

The patients received broad-spectrum antiparasitic and deworming, as well as supplements. 

By the way, we also give the Mahouts oils to relax their elephants’ muscles as a precaution, as well as creams and liquids to clean wounds. Most of them are really concerned about animal welfare and want to be equipped for all eventualities. 





On the way home, as always, we had a super delicious meal, and this time we sat down together again at the end of the week and said goodbye. 

The icing on the cake after a very short night was today, however, as we started at 5 am to admire the sunrise in Phang Nga Bay with a cup of coffee. Breathtakingly beautiful!!!


Sunrise in Thailand

Enjoying our breakfast

Enjoying the evening