Wild at Heart: The Plight of Elephants in Thailand
Elephants in Thailand have a big unemployment problem. Long a revered creature in traditional Asian cultures and a critical beast of burden for Asian economies, the captive elephant is becoming obsolete. Its plight has only worsened since 1989, when Thailand banned all logging operations, a major employer of these animals. Luckily, the thousands of captive elephants in Thailand have never been selectively bred and remain genetically wild. Watch how local and international scientists are reintroducing Asian elephants to the forest and reestablishing herd structures in hopes of reverting them to their most noble occupation—living wild.
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For almost 4,000 years, people in Thailand and other Asian nations have removed elephants from the forest for use in war, as beasts of burden, and for religious purposes. But as habitats shrink and economies change, the elephant's cultural role is diminishing—and the problems of elephant management are growing. One possible solution is to return the elephants to the forest. "Unlike, say, chimpanzees or orangutans or many carnivores, you have 16,000 [Asian elephants] that are eminently suitable for release [back to the wild]," writes Thai elephant expert Richard Lair in Gone Astray: The Care and Management of the Asian Elephant in Domesticity, a report for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. "It's almost like having 16,000 white rhino or snow leopards or okapi, just sitting in people's back yards in Asia."
The Elephant (and Thailand) Advantage
Over the centuries, there has been a continuous exchange between Asia's domesticated and wild elephant populations. Unlike most zoo-raised or domestic species, Asian elephants have never been selectively bred, so they remain genetically wild. "Legally, biologically, genetically, behaviorally, the Asian elephant is a wild animal, clear and simple," says Lair. "Probably three out of four [domesticated] elephants on this continent are taken out at night to feed in the jungle, either with a chain dragging behind the leg, or chained to a tree," he explains. "Almost all of them are able to feed on a wide variety of native plant species. They're very adept going up and down hills. They know how to find water. They're attuned to nature."
Therefore, Asian elephant reintroduction has advantages over other reintroduction projects in which captive animals must be taught how to live in the wild. "These elephants seem to go back straight away and understand immediately what is their food and where it is and how to eat it," says Robert Mather, the country representative for the World Wildlife Fund in Thailand.
Thailand is also an ideal place for reintroduction. Unlike many Asian countries, Thailand has large areas of suitable wild habitat emptied of elephants by ivory poachers or hunters. One such region is the Doi Pha Muang Wildlife Sanctuary. Located in northern Thailand, the sanctuary is large enough to support around 20 elephants. It has the abundant water and varied vegetation a healthy herd needs. In 1997, Queen Sikrit of Thailand released three elephants into the sanctuary to inaugurate the country's first elephant reintroduction effort. The goal of the project is not only to reintroduce elephants into the wild but also to increase the number of areas that can support elephant populations and reduce the various threats to the species, which include habitat loss, unemployment, and neglect.
Ready for Release?
Near Doi Pha Muang is an elephant hospital and holding area. Here, abandoned and injured elephants are sheltered, given medical treatment, and observed for several months to see what future best suits them. Depending on an animal's temperament, age, and condition, it might work in the tourism industry, go to a breeding center, or be released back into the forest.
Ideal candidates for reintroduction are former logging elephants that are already accustomed to living and finding food in the forest. Once an elephant is deemed suitable, it undergoes a thorough physical exam, with blood samples drawn for DNA fingerprinting.
When establishing a new population, the first to be released are older females, as they usually lead wild herds. Next to be released are females with young calves, which help create strong social bonds and develop a natural age and class structure. Next in line are adult males, in order to establish a breeding pool. Last come adolescent elephants, which are closely watched to determine whether and how they are accepted into the now-established herd. "You have to think very carefully indeed about the nature of the elephants you're going to release," explains Lair. "You've got to select one cow which you think everybody else will accept as the leader. You also have to think about the personalities of the other elephants. Will they form a cohesive unit?"
Before the first elephant release in Thailand, the biggest concern was that nobody could predict the animals' behavior. "What would an elephant do when you release it in the forest [after] it's been fed by humans for 20, 30, 40 years?" asks biologist Michael Steuwe, who has radio-tracked reintroduced elephants for the Smithsonian Institution. Would they panic and disappear into the forest—or head for the rice paddies outside the preserve?
Human behavior is another challenge. "You have to be sure that [the animals will] stay inside the forest," says Mather. "That you're not releasing elephants that are dangerous to humans or other elephants. That they're not going to crop-raid. That you're not releasing elephants into areas where angry farmers will shoot or poison them. And of course, you have to make sure the elephants would be able to fend for themselves."
Older Thais remember how to react when elephants are close by, but many villagers who now live on the outskirts of the sanctuary have to be taught how to recognize aggressive signals, such as flattened ears and pawing the ground. "Elephants will always, always let you know that they still have a stake in the land," warns Steuwe. "They will not disappear; they will fight for it."
To assess the success of the reintroductions, researchers tracked the whereabouts of the first seven elephants released in Doi Pha Muang for two years. The elephants were fitted with collars that transmitted signals up to a weather satellite, and the signals were relayed to the program's Bangkok office.
Additional detailed monitoring took place on the ground. Groups of several rangers translated satellite data onto maps and trekked into the forest to observe the seven animals in the wild. They also followed radio signals from ground transmitters attached to the elephant collars. The rangers took notes on what the elephants ate, where they slept, and how the herd structure was developing. To monitor the elephants, the team also used cameras and radios during the day and infrared scopes at night.
"We can quite happily and confidently say that the elephants really started to fend for themselves from the word 'go,'" reports Mather. "They seemed to know exactly where to find food and what to eat. They had no problem finding water." Even more encouraging, though the released elephants had lived close to humans for decades, they all moved deeper into the forest rather than into nearby agricultural fields. As is customary for wild elephants, the animals stay near their water source in the dry months but move around during the monsoon season to pursue the lush vegetation that springs up.
Most significantly, the elephants reverted instinctively to wild behavior. The herd took up a recognizable structure. Originally easily approachable by humans, they now call out warning sounds to each other if they smell humans and avoid contact even with their long-time mahouts. "It'll be interesting to see how long it takes before even a mahout, whose whole life has been spent around elephants, feels it's not really safe to get close," says Mather.
Elephant reintroduction has expanded in Thailand after the success of the initial release. More than two dozen domesticated elephants have been returned to Doi Pha Muang Wildlife Sanctuary and Kaeng Ka Charn and Mae Wa-Mae Wok National Parks, and more wait in the wings. To learn about the latest efforts of the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation, which was established in 2002, visit the group's blog.
Despite Thailand's successes, many questions remain about the future of elephants in Asia overall. Many other countries don't have any suitable habitat left or have yet to realize that elephants are a valuable resource in need of protection. "Or simply," in Richard Lair's words, "that these are...wonderful creatures that have a right to exist."
Unlike people in Africa, who kept their distance from elephants except to hunt them, people in Asia have lived closely with elephants since at least 2000 B.C. All levels of society developed cultures of working with and caring for these creatures. Mahouts—the men who handle, train, and look after the elephants—have a long history in Asia. A mahout's skills came from an intimate bond with the elephant and were passed down from father to son over generations.
Domesticated—Yet Still Wild
Unlike horses, dogs, or cattle, domesticated Asian elephants are have never been bred selectively by humans. All domesticated elephants—most of which have been either captured from forests or sired by wild parents—remain genetically and behaviorally wild. Nevertheless, many quickly form bonds of friendship, affection, and trust with their keepers. Richard Lair, Thai elephant expert and author of Gone Astray: The Care and Management of the Asian Elephant in Domesticity, says "I've seen elephants baby-sit one- and two-year-old children. The child tries to get away, and the old mother elephant reaches its trunk out and pulls the baby back under her feet, which is the safest place in the world. This is really quite unusual and quite astounding." A factor underlying this bond may well be elephants' well-documented curiosity of people.
Asian people, in turn, have long treasured and venerated elephants as noble champions, brave hunting companions, and loyal friends. From Mesopotamia through India, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, and as far east as China, elephants have figured prominently in history, art, literature, and religion. Elephants appear at every level of the Hindu pantheon, where benevolent, elephant-headed Ganesh, the god of learning and success, is one of the most beloved Indian deities. The animal's size, wisdom, and value on tiger hunts earned it a prominent role in Buddhist belief and imagery. An elephant is said to have fathered Sakyamuni, the last known reincarnation of the Buddha, which entered his mother's lap in the form of a white elephant.
A Useful Beast
In the past century, about 100,000 elephants were captured in Asia. Perhaps a few million were captured since the species was first domesticated some 4,000 years ago. Over the millennia, these elephants have been put to many uses:
• As weapons: Elephants were one of the four ancient Indian army units (the others being cavalry, chariots, and infantry). War elephants were trained to respond to a variety of commands. They could charge in formation, cross fences and pits, knock down barricades, and trample men and horses. Young nobles were expected to master the art of combat mounted on an elephant. War elephants served under the command of Roman emperors, Mongol lords, and Indian rajas until the introduction of gunpowder put an end to their usefulness. Even then, the British used them in Burma through World War II to build bridges, launch ships, and haul munitions.
• In royal duels: Battles between princes and rajas often began with a duel between two armored elephants. The mahouts were usually at greater risk than the animals.
• As executioners: Sometimes an elephant—preferably a sacred white one—was trained to crush the head of a condemned man beneath its foot. This practice continued until the late 19th century.
• As vehicles: Elephants were the royal mount for Indian rajas from 400 B.C. until the mid-20th century. For many centuries, they carried important people on hunting expeditions in wooden enclosures called howdahs. Now they are increasingly used to carry tourists shooting cameras instead of guns. Elephants can penetrate deep in the jungle, and they remain the only reliable mode of transport in certain parts of India when the Ganges floods during the monsoon.
• As loggers: Before chain saws and bulldozers, elephants were used to knock down trees. The economic potential of Asian elephants was fully exploited for the first time during colonial rule, when they were put to work in large-scale logging efforts. They helped fell and drag massive trees, some weighing up to four tons, to rivers and, later, to trucks and boats. Thousands of elephants are still used by illegal logging operations in Thailand and elsewhere, but these unfortunate animals are overworked and abused.
• As pack animals: Transporting goods over long distances and rough terrain has always employed far more animals than the logging industry. Although the advent of railways and motor vehicles took away much of their work, elephants remain irreplaceable in roadless regions, especially during the rainy season, in Myanmar, northeast India, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Probably the only draft animal equally at home on steep hillsides and in muddy swampland, elephants are astonishingly sure-footed.
• As plows: Elephants are used to plow rice paddies and coconut plantations, and to pull water carts.
• In religious ceremonies: Elephants play an important part in the countless religious processions and ceremonies that punctuate village life in Asia. The animal may stand while a mother holds her baby under its belly to endow the child with intelligence and strength. Or it may carry sacred relics in a stately march to the temple. Unruffled by frenzied crowds and loud music, elephants seem to understand, and perhaps even enjoy, their ceremonial roles.
New Uses for Asian Elephants
Today, the Asian elephant is endangered, so domesticated populations can now serve an even more valuable purpose: aiding in the conservation of their own species. For wild elephants that have run out of natural habitat, domesticity may provide a last refuge. Domesticated elephants are valuable for research and public education, and they are essential in training their wild cousins for wildlife management purposes. Most importantly, because they remain genetically wild, they are excellent candidates for reintroduction.
A crowded, changing world has evicted the Asian elephant from most of its habitat and reduced its economic importance. Mahouts are no longer regarded with the respect they were accorded for centuries. As their status has declined, so has the care and treatment of their enormous charges. Yet the revered status of the elephant and the custom of coexistence remain deeply rooted in Asian culture. This tradition—along with the sense that the elephant has given much to man, and that it's time to give back—is fueling a multinational conservation movement.
The Asian elephant once roamed from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in western Asia as far east as China's Yangtze River. No longer. Now a highly endangered species, it has been eliminated from western Asia completely, from substantial parts of the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, and almost entirely from China. Exceedingly adaptable in diet and behavior, elephants can survive anywhere from grasslands to rain forests, but they must migrate across large areas to find water and suitable food at different times of the year. Such vast ranges have become extremely rare in densely populated, rapidly developing Asia.
Though it's difficult to count elephants in the wild, it's estimated that the wild Asian population, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands at the turn of the 20th century, is now only 37,000 to 48,000 animals. Yet thanks to ancient cultural tradition, about 16,000 Asian elephants are kept in captivity in 11 Asian countries. This situation makes the Asian elephant unique among endangered large mammals. In Thailand there are nearly three times as many elephants in domesticity as in the wild.
Threats to Wild Elephants
• No room to roam: The greatest threat to wild Asian elephants is habitat loss and fragmentation. Throughout the tropics, humans have cleared large areas of forest and have rapidly populated river valleys and plains. Elephants have been pushed into hilly landscapes and less suitable remnants of forest, but even these less accessible habitats are being assaulted by poachers, loggers, and developers.
Once-continuous habitat has become increasingly broken up by dams, tea and coffee plantations, roads, and railway lines. These developments obstruct the seasonal migrations of elephant clans. Habitat fragmentation also divides elephant populations into small, isolated groups, which are then at risk of inbreeding. Some biologists believe that there are no longer any wild Asian elephant populations large enough to avoid genetic deterioration over the long term.
• Conflicts with humans: When elephants stray out of the forest into settled areas, they sometimes destroy property, trample crops, and even kill people. Not infrequently, farmers respond with gunfire or poison.
• Ivory poaching: The international ivory trade has contributed far more to the decline of African elephants than Asian ones over the last few decades. Still, the people of Asia have a 500-year tradition of ivory carving and often hunt males for their tusks.
• Capture of young elephants: Many young elephants are removed from the wild to supply tourist and entertainment industries. In the process, mothers and other females attempting to protect the young are killed. Many calves captured for such purposes are prematurely weaned, socially isolated or otherwise cruelly treated, and die before they reach age five.
Threats to Domestic Elephants
For thousands of years the elephant was part of the fabric of daily life in Asia. They served primarily to transport goods and people. When the 20th century began, elephants were put to use by the timber industry, destroying their own habitat in the process. Except in less-developed Myanmar, the need for elephant labor has steadily declined since World War II, and so has the domesticated Asian elephant population.
With domestic elephants becoming obsolete, the occupation of mahout, or elephant handler, no longer commands the respect it once did. The profession, its specialized knowledge, and the time-honored relationship between man and animal are dying out. Children have little interest in learning the trade. "The skill level of elephant-keeping, the ability to control bulls, is going down very, very rapidly," says Thai elephant expert Richard Lair. "Ten, twenty, fifty years from now, what are we going to be doing with our bull elephants?"
The biggest problem facing domesticated elephants is unemployment. The situation is perhaps most dire in Thailand, where a complete ban on logging in 1989 put several thousand elephants and mahouts out of work. An elephant typically eats about 200 kilograms of food a day, "so unless you're a very wealthy person who likes to keep expensive pets, or unless your elephant is actually working for you and generating some income, it's not easy to keep an elephant in captivity," explains Robert Mather, the country representative for the World Wildlife Fund in Thailand.
And while one person can watch a whole herd of cattle or sheep, each elephant needs one person and sometimes two people to look after it. But with the decline in skilled mahouts, many elephants are now handled by inexperienced people. This leads to elephants that at best are poorly cared for and at worst severely abused. Human keepers are being harmed by elephants more often as well.
New Jobs for Beasts of Burden?
Although well protected from international trade, Asian elephants have little protection under domestic laws. Generally, national wildlife agencies in Asia consider the domesticated elephant to be just another domestic animal (and allow their tusks to be sold), while livestock departments consider it wild and not under their jurisdiction. "So it's in a very curious, halfway position that makes conservation very difficult," explains Lair. Caring for privately owned domesticated Asian elephants often turns out to be the job of an impoverished mahout—or nobody's job at all.
Elephants are now competing for fewer jobs at lower pay, which has forced mahouts to accept undesirable jobs or to overwork their animals. In Thailand, some owners have even started selling their elephants to be slaughtered for meat. Less than 10 years ago, such an act would still have been unthinkable. "Captive elephants in Thailand at the moment would seem to have rather limited options," says Mather bluntly. Possibilities include:
• The tourist industry: Ecotourism is a booming market in many developing countries, and often it's the only viable solution for elephants. In addition to offering protection to some wild herds so that tourists can observe them in their natural habitat, ecotourism has given many domesticated elephants better work opportunities. The elephants that carry tourists safely on treks through the jungle are usually well cared for. "It's not desirable; it's not traditional," Lair points out. "On the other hand, it's relatively harmless, and it's the only form of employment that will make sure that people continue to keep elephants." But not all elephants are temperamentally suited for toting tourists—especially not the large, aggressive male elephants once valued by loggers.
Unfortunately, an increasing number of elephants are also being used in less benign forms of tourism. Performing in shows or serving as special attractions in hotels and tourist centers, they often suffer from lack of social contact with fellow elephants or risk injury doing dangerous and unnatural tricks.
• Logging: Selective logging—in which only certain trees are cut, leaving the forest habitat as a whole intact—would be an optimal choice. Elephants could work in a traditional and legitimate manner, and their use would protect the forest by reducing the need for roads and heavy machinery. Selective logging is rarely employed, however. It is an option only in places where sufficient healthy forest remains, which is not the case in many parts of Asia. And in Thailand, the 1989 ban has made all forms of logging illegal.
The Thai ban sparked a jump in lumber prices, which led to a boom in illegal woodcutting. Elephant labor is essential to this illicit trade, which is thought to employ between 1,000 and 2,000 animals, in northern Thailand in particular. But these animals are poorly cared for.
• Begging in the streets: More and more elephants can be found with their destitute mahouts begging for money in the streets of large Asian cities like Bangkok. These elephants suffer respiratory infections, damage property, and get hit by cars.
Solving the Plight
Fortunately, the elephant has become a flagship species of wildlife conservation in all 13 countries of Asia where it is still found. Efforts are being made on many fronts:
• Reducing the hunting and capture of wild elephants for ivory and tourism.
• Curbing habitat destruction: One solution is to create vegetated corridors between separated habitats. This can be as simple as building a bridge across a canal, but the bridge must be wide, as only bulls are bold enough to cross a narrow bridge. Other ways to improve the quantity or quality of remaining habitat include maintaining a buffer zone of secondary-growth forest and creating waterholes.
• Improving protection of wild herds: This is complicated. Populations must be large enough offset inbreeding and environmental dangers such as droughts and floods. Yet herd size must be controlled to minimize encroachment on human habitats and to foster local support for elephant conservation.
Trenches, electric fences, spotlights, and noisy rockets have all been used to deter elephants from straying onto planted fields, but with varying degrees of success. Other tactics include persuading farmers to grow crops that aren't attractive to elephants and removing troublesome bull elephants. However, the males disproportionately responsible for crop damage and attacks on humans tend to be the most successful breeders, so eliminating them from the population isn't a desirable solution. If existing habitat is inadequate, sometimes elephants are relocated to roomier ones.
• Better care for captive elephants: Another initiative is to establish centers to accommodate unwanted, abused, and confiscated elephants. For example, the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang provides a home, work, food, and veterinary care to more than 100 elephants. Dangerous animals are confined in a secure area; young working elephants are trained; and the rest roam free and breed, producing young elephants that will be reintroduced to the wild.
• Reintroduction to the wild: "If elephants can't find gainful employment, then instead of having them wandering the streets of Bangkok begging for money from tourists or Thais, let's just put them back in the wild," says Mather. "Send them back into the forest. That's their home." Thailand's Elephant Reintroduction Foundation does such work, releasing domesticated elephants into the wild to generate wild herds.