Elephants and the City


Happy baby elephant at the centre in Lampang

Have you ever thought about how much it costs to feed an elephant every day? On average, an elephant eats up to 100-200 kilos of food per day. An elephant bull needs 150-250 kilos of food a day to satisfy his appetite. In terms of bananas, that’s roughly 825 – 1375 baht ( US$ 27 – 46) per day just to feed one elephant (at 5.5 baht per kilo of bananas).

In Thailand, an elephant’s survival is solely the responsibility of their mahout (kwan chang in Thai), whose traditional occupation is to take care and train their elephant. Usually, a mahout starts his career as a young boy in the ‘family business’ when he is assigned an elephant early in it’s life. They are expected be attached to one other throughout the elephant’s life, which is normally 60 – 70 years. In the northern part of Thailand, mahouts are traditionally the occupation of the Karen people.

Unlike the elephant populations of India and Africa, 95% of Thailand’s elephants are domesticated working elephants and privately owned. In Thailand, tame elephants are regarded as a type of livestock and are not covered under Thailand’s Conservation Act of 1992. If legally owned, there is minimal protection or welfare for them under Thai law.

Prior to 1989, most domestic elephants in Thailand were employed in the logging and forestry services, used mainly to haul logs up mountains and across rough terrain. This became illegal as widespread destruction of Thailand’s forests occurred. Without access to the forests, there is less wild food available and the mahouts need to find another source of income in order to take care of their elephants and families.

Today most work for mahouts is in the tourist business, since elephant rides are popular among travelers to Thailand. The tourist experience of elephants in Thailand usually includes any combination of the following: elephant rides, trekking with elephants, elephant shows, and/or elephants begging on the streets of the big cities. Street begging elephants are used by mahouts who charge tourists to feed them. In some areas of Thailand, this practice became illegal due to the traffic dangers posed, however street begging elephants are still a common sight in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

When you consider the historical plight of the elephants and mahouts in Thailand, and the rising cost of their upkeep, it saddens and sickens me to read stories like this:

Aussie ‘attacked’ by Thai elephant guide AAP December 14, 2010

AN enraged Thai elephant trainer beat an Australian tourist with a hooked stick after the man criticised him for using elephants to milk cash from tourists, Thai police said.  Kingsley William, 41, suffered cuts to his arm, head and ear when the elephant trainer and guide, known as a mahout, attacked him with a hook used for controlling elephants in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai.

An Australian woman, Kim Kavanagh, 31, was injured when she went to Mr William’s aid. Reports in Bangkok said the mahout, Bancha Niyomsakul, attacked Mr William after the Australian accused him of exploiting elephants to beg for money.  Thai police said Bancha became angry when the Australian tourists refused to buy bananas for the elephants, and the two men argued with Mr Niyomsakul lashing out at Mr William.

Elephants are regularly brought to tourist areas where mahouts ask passersby to buy bananas for the elephants.  Bags of bananas cost about 75 Australian cents or 20 baht.  But foreign tourists are often critical of the practice, seen as a form of begging.  Mr William and Ms Kavanagh were not hospitalised following the incident and continued on their travels.

Thai tourism authorities and police have launched crackdowns against practice of bringing elephants into cities and towns.  Tourist and local police were not immediately available for comment.

In Thailand the captive elephant population is estimated at around 2000, with a further 2000 still living in the wild.  The Forest Industry Organisation which oversees an elephant rehabilitation centre in northern Thailand estimates the Thai elephant population is declining by a rate of three per cent a year.  The elephants are largely known for working in the forest and logging industries. But an end to forest concessions in recent decades has led to many elephants being put to work in the tourist industry.

Give a thought to the poor elephants who are not designed to live in urban jungles. Below is an example of one of the mishaps that can occur to elephants living in the cities.


Thai elephant trapped in manhole

Some of the other urban dangers for elephants working in the cities include:

Feet – Most street elephants start work at about 4 pm when they begin walking from their hideouts on wasteland to the main entertainment districts. At this time of day, it’s still very hot on the pavements, burning the soles of elephants’ feet. Elephant feet are designed for walking in jungles and grassland and not burning concrete. There is also the danger of rubbish. Many elephants live on wasteland that is littered with broken bottles, rusty cans and other hazards. Often they cut their feet which lead to infection, blood poisoning and even death.

Sunstroke and DehydrationDuring the day most city elephants hide on wasteland. Often there is no shade for the elephants who left unprotected from the ravages of the sun. Street elephants can get appalling sunburn  that is absolute agony as their skin peels from their backs.

They often inadequate water supplies. They have to rely on their mahouts to bring them water in buckets. This is however hard work and only the most dedicated mahout will bring the 60 gallons a day that the elephant needs.

Gastric and Respiratory Problems – These are both very common in city elephants. Elephants have sensitive stomachs yet most of the diet of a street elephant is contaminated by pollution, pesticides or both. Similarly the air the elephants breathe is choked by pollution and exhaust fumes. For an animal designed to live in a natural environment,  pollution can play havoc with an elephant’s respiration system. Elephants have been found in Bangkok desperate for water, collapsed from severe dehydration in the heat of the midday sun.

Traffic and other accidents– Motor vehicles are a major danger. In 2002, a Thai government minister stated that up 20 elephants a month were involved in traffic accidents. A traffic accident can leave a street- walking elephant crippled for life.

There are also many other hazards in the city that can cause elephants to have accidents when they are out of a familiar environment. In 1987 an elephant called Boon Choo fell into an open sewer and died in Bangkok. Others have suffered a similar fate since.


In Thailand it is illegal for elephants to be living in urban areas. The government tries to enforce the law but it is very difficult. The mahouts hide their elephants and constantly move them to different areas of the city. However, even when elephants are relocated there are great difficulties. The average city police officer has no idea how to deal with a four ton elephant and often it is easier for law enforcement to turn a blind eye to the problem. Occasionally the government brings in experienced mahouts and purges the city but it is only a matter of time before the elephants are brought back in and are on the streets again.

There are several elephant conservation organisations in Thailand which support the rehabilitation of elephants and offer alternative employment for them and their mahouts. One of the best institutions is the National Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang where there is a an elephant hospital and mahout training program for tourists. Visitors can stay overnight or just visit the centre and experience a short elephant trek in the natural forested area. For more information, go to http://www.changthai.com/ The centre also has an elephant adoption project. For more information on this project, go to http://www.tatnews.org/others/1785.asp#1 I am planning to “adopt” an elephant on my next visit to Thailand.

Happy baby elephant at the centre in Lampang

National Elephant Conservation Center, Lampang

Note: Mahouts ( kwan-chang in Thai) – the person who drives an elephant. The word mahout comes from the Hindi words mahaut and mahavat.

To see more happy photos of elephants, see my post on the Dancing Elephants at Mae Taeng Elephant Park in Chiang Mai.

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