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Trunks in Tethers

Captive Elephants of Thailand
A close up of a shackled Asiatic elephant in the Surin Elephant Kingdom.

My experience of elephants in Thailand began in the Grand Palace, where they are depicted as formidable battlefront allies, adorned in gilded gold armor, bearing a warrior on their backs and a mahout upon their necks. Their might and weight evidenced by the sheer number of infantry they are able to stand their ground against in the painted scenes. This is how they are revered in society to date, as the Thai retrace their deep connection to these animals back to the great wars fought in this region.

Grand Palace Elephant Mural
This scene in the mural depicts the use of Asian elephants by the king’s armies. Photo by Asher Jay

In later years these trained elephants were assigned new utilitarian value by the logging industry, however the use of these animals to pull logs was brought to an abrupt end by the Thai government in 1989. This led to both mahouts and elephants not having gainful employment and consequently no income from which to support themselves with. No financial compensatory measure was offered immediately, which led to elephants being walked from their villages into the cities to beg for money. This compromised the welfare and health of these giants as their day-to-day living conditions were unsanitary and their daily nutrition was undermined.

In 2009 however the Queen issued a memo that empowered the Zoological Park Organization (ZPO) under the Royal Patronage of H.M. The King, to incentivize mahouts to keep elephants in their respective villages and off city streets. ZPO, realizing these mahouts would need more than the $400 a month stipend per elephant to care for these behemoths properly, helped form a safe haven for these animals and their keepers. Consequently the Surin elephant kingdom in Northeastern Thailand was established, designated by His Majesty the King, to allow elephants to live in more natural settings with access to forests, large water bodies, and a balanced diet. This effort also offers the keepers real estate to grow feed (bamboo, banana, and sugar cane) for their animals and a place to bathe and adequately hydrate them. Adult elephants can consume up to 300 pounds of food and 50 gallons of water a day.

Elephants bathing
Elephants being walked to their daily bath. Photo by Asher Jay

“Things are getting better, but we still have a long way to go … ”observes Boripat Siriaroonrat, the Director for Conservation & Research at ZPO. It is for this reason ZPO has strategically partnered with Veterinarian’s International (VI) and The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF), to address the health, well-being, and sustained care of these animals across Thailand. John Roberts, founder of GTAEF, mentioned,”Both kids and adults alike need to be sensitized and educated about proper elephant husbandry techniques, to ensure these animals are treated well and kept in good health.”

With over half of the nation’s elephant population falling under the “domesticated animals” headcount, the fate and future of these servile pachyderms seems forever tethered to their mahouts. Thailand’s current population of elephants is around 7,000+ in total, of which nearly 3,500 to 4,000 are captive beasts of burden. They have been broken-in from an early age, isolated from their mothers within a year into each calf’s development, and stripped of the social structures they thrive in, when they retain their birthright to wild freedom. These enslaved animals can never be reintroduced into wild herds. Many of them display stereotypic stress behaviors, like swaying from side to side or back and forth. They bear the psychological and physical wounds of neglect, abuse, malnutrition, and seclusion.

Within the Eye
As I photographed these animals, I experienced their hollowed-out, vacant, spiritless stares. They seem like mere husks, no longer able to recall what it means to be elephant. Photo by Asher Jay

In an enlightening conversation with Dr. Scarlett Magda, the founder of Veterinarians International, she said, “Most elephants in captivity are suffering from physical and mental illnesses that stem from inappropriate training and inadequate welfare conditions. I believe that the best way to induce change is by using a ‘one-health’ approach of interdisciplinary collaboration and local empowerment. Providing veterinary care and appropriate welfare guidelines is paramount and an important first step, but at the same time we need recognize, educate, and instill pride in the mahouts, as they are the gate keepers to the elephants’ physical and emotional well being. If the mahouts are not happy, the elephants are not happy.”

Like farmed tigers, tame Asiatic elephants are qualified as a “welfare,” not a “wildlife,” problem, one that has been difficult to address due to regionally ingrained practices and cultural bias. Domesticated elephants fall under the jurisdiction of the Livestock Department. In Surin, the veterinarians under the employment of this agency are an hour away from the elephant camps, which has made it impossible to deliver routine preventative care for these animals. Such expedient medical assistance mandates a full time vet on site and in the field, or the presence of a mobile clinic, which is precisely what Veterinarian’s International helped establish in Surin. The two mobile elephant clinics (MECs) will avail urgent, on site care for the 200 elephants currently extant in the Surin province. The vet-on-call’s salary is being provided by the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation.

Mobile Elephant Clinic
Mobile Elephant Clinic Vets in action. Photo by Asher Jay
Elephant Calf Receiving Treatment
Elephant calf receiving treatment at a camp in Surin. Photo by Asher Jay

“Plai, an elephant pictured below, collapsed due to the lack of consistent access to health care.” Dr. Magda adds, “Our vets will not only provide vet care and education for the mahouts, but will go into the local schools to teach empathy and humane animal husbandry practices, so the next generation can take better care of their elephants, and the children can go home to their parents teaching them best practices.”

Fallen Plai elephant
Plai collapsed due to malnutrition, something that could have been prevented by the existence of a mobile elephant clinic (MEC) and on-site vet. This incident inspired the launch of the MECs. Photo by Don and Kim Toothman

ZPO’s CEO Benjapol Nakprasert underscored the catalyzation of the next generation as integral to the success of this initiative. “I can foresee the elephants and Guay people having a better life quality in their hometown,” he said. “It is my hope that some of the kids will grow up to be elephant vets and knowledgeable mahouts, and help their elders take on this task of empowering the harmonious coexistence between people and elephants in Surin and across Thailand.”