Veterinary Expert Alongkorn Mahannop’s Urgent Plea to Society before Thai Elephants Exist only in our Memory

Renowned Thai veterinarian Dr. Alongkorn Mahannop who for close to five decades has dedicated his life to caring for elephants in Thailand has enumerated the problems faced by wild and domesticated Thai elephants.  He has proposed systematic and sustainable solutions for these problems that all sectors, especially the tourism sector and the general public can help not only to ensure the survival of our elephants but also for the community economy and humanity in general. 

Towards the end of 2022 up until January 2023, there were many reports in the media on over a hundred wild elephants in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary that had escaped to eat up sugar cane and cassava, raiding rice granaries and causing damage to crops of the people living near the fringe areas between Cha-Cheong-Sao and Prachin Buri provinces.   

These measures have succeeded in bringing an end to the conflict between elephants and humans albeit only temporarily.  As long as our forest lands continue to diminish and temperatures around the world are on the rise we will continue to hear the news about elephants raiding agricultural areas, accidents involving elephants falling off cliffs or being electrocuted, abuses, injuries, and deaths.    

In the opinion of Thai Veterinarian Alongkorn Mahannop who received an honorary degree in Veterinary Science from Chulalongkorn University in 2020 “If the number of Thailand’s elephants should diminish and come close to extinction, this would significantly impact the entire ecosystem along with humans who are at the end of the food chain.  It is crucial therefore that the elephant population be maintained at an appropriate number.”   

From the time he was a student at the Faculty of Veterinary Science, Dr. Alongkorn Mahannop recalls how he was frequently called on to attend to elephants in need of urgent care whether from abuse, accidents, or elephants on a rampage.  These experiences spurred him to initiate various projects for the welfare of wild and domesticated elephants continuously.  He also collaborated with several organizations to push for the successful enactment of the Cruelty Prevention and Welfare of Animals Act, B.E. 2557 (2014).   

Nowadays elephant welfare has improved considerably but there are still many matters that await more systematic and comprehensive solutions.  Dr. Alongkorn continues to be steadfast in his work for Thai elephants and has urged all sectors of society to understand the nature of the problems since this will ensure not only a way out for the animals but also the survival and peaceful coexistence of the ecosystem, wildlife, and humanity.   

PART I: Wild Elephants

“Wild elephants” that help protect the ecosystem 

It is normally our understanding that elephants are dependent on forests for their shelter, water, and food sources.  In reality, however, our forests are dependent upon the existence of elephants as well. 

As Dr. Alongkorn explained, “Wild elephants play an important role in the ecosystem as they are the ones that cultivate the land by sowing the seeds and fertilizing the soil.  Elephant excrement is rich in nutrients and it is from them that plants are propagated to become a source of food for other wild animals and are therefore beneficial for the existence of the food chain as a whole.”   

Is it true that wild elephants cause the destruction of agricultural lands and the community?   

 Nowadays many people tend to depictions of wild elephants in the news and conclude that they play a more destructive rather than constructive role in forest cultivation.  As Dr. Alongkorn points out, this phenomenon is a result of urban development and economic advancement that has led to deforestation to increase agricultural land and habitat for human beings.  One must also not discount other factors such as global warming which has had a crucial effect on rainwater levels and climate change which has had a significant impact on the fertility of our forests.   

“Elephants are enormous, in need of large amounts of food and water supplies each day.  When that diminishes, they need to wander around in search for food and water but find that those areas have mostly become agricultural areas to feed the people.”   

This is what has led to the conflict between humans and elephants, the latter being accused of encroaching on agricultural land. Dr. Alongkorn cites as an example, a situation that took place in Kui Buri District, Prachuab Khirikhan Province about 30 years ago saying “Wild elephants instinctively search for food at certain times of the year, especially in the dry season when water is scarce.  Once they return to the places they had normally frequented the elephants found those lands were now used for pineapple plantations.  The pineapples had a taste that appealed to them and water was abundant and this attracted large numbers of wild elephants so much so that the people in the area resorted to killing many of the elephants.”   

H.M. King Bhumibol’s initiatives to bring about a peaceful coexistence between elephants and human beings 

Perceiving the problem between wild elephants and pineapple plantations, His Majesty King Bhumibol saw to it that a committee be set up to find a proper solution to the problem.  He also allocated his personal funds to purchase fruits from the people and fed them to the elephants for their consumption.   

 As Dr. Mahannop recalls, “The Late King’s idea was to reforest without having to plant trees by allowing them to grow naturally to become food for the elephants and other wild animals.  Helicopters were used to scatter seeds in the areas that were to be natural forests in the future.”  People in the area donated the land used for cultivating pineapples to the government and worked with the staff of the Department of Natural Park, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation to restore forest lands and protect animals from being hunted down.  The result has been that in around twenty years since the project was implemented the number of elephants in the area grew from 33 to over 200. 

The conflict between humans and elephants has lessened since people can now depend on income generated from ecotourism and we no longer see elephants dying of unnatural causes in the Kui Buri area, Dr. Alongkorn concluded.   

Returning the habitats to the elephants  

 Having worked with the royally initiated projects and many other areas around the country, Dr. Alongkorn’s advice on habitats for elephants is to make sure that food and water sources are both provided.  “Elephants are large animals and they cannot always stand the heat.  They need to be near water sources and to have the shade of trees to help reduce their body temperatures.  The water need not come from very large ponds so the best way is to dig smaller pools in different areas around the forest.  For food, elephants like bamboo and other trees and vines.  If various types are planted they will provide the animals with food all year round.”   

Cultivating relations between elephants and humans   

Dr. Alongkorn offers the following suggestions:  

  • Organizations tasked with taking care of wild elephants such as the Department of Natural Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation should regularly assess the number of wild elephants in a certain area and if they exceed the limits relocate them to a more appropriate area.   
  • Elephants found to display violent behavior might be moved or relocated to an area where they do not pose a danger to human beings.    
  • A fund to assist people who have been affected by wild elephants can be established with the appropriate rates and criteria for compensation.    
  • Limiting the number of persons allowed in a natural park on each given day or time so that at any certain time if there happen to be dangerous animals around in that vicinity the appropriate help can be given in case of an emergency.   
  • Bring together the people and various sectors to collaborate in providing funds and resources needed to provide sources of food and water for elephants and other wild animals.   

PART II: Domesticated Elephants

Domesticated elephants and the threat of extinction  

Aside from wild elephants Thailand also has domesticated elephants that have been a part of our cultural heritage from ancient times.  They fought alongside our soldiers in times of battle and later helped drive a modern economy when forest concessions were given and elephants were used to haul heavy logs through the forests.  Today they serve in Thailand’s branding to convey a notion related to being Thai or coming from Thailand, an iconic magnet that attracts tourists from all over the world to visit Thailand.    

“When I had just graduated, the number of domesticated elephants in Thailand was around 800 – 1000.  This was critical putting the elephants at risk of extinction since the mortality rate was then 10 percent per year and the experts had to think of ways to increase their numbers” Dr. Alongkorn recalled.    

The highest cause of death in domesticated elephants came from epidemics such as swelling in the neck caused by bacterial infections, and the currently rampaging EEHV or Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus epidemic that can result in death within 48 hours, especially in young elephants.   It took 5-6 years to find the right medicine to cure this disease and save the lives of our elephants.  In 2021 only two domesticated elephants died due to an epidemic yet Dr. Alongkorn hopes that the number can be brought down to 0% in the future. 

Reducing the mortality rate is not the only goal, there must also be a way to increase the elephant population as well.  If elephants are physically fit and well fed the female can bear as many as 3-5 baby elephants during its life span which is usually around 60-70 years.     

 For the past 40 years, a veterinary team has worked hard to reduce elephant mortality and increase the population.  It has also registered domesticated elephants and as many as 4,500 now have microchips attached to them for identification. 

“In the future, we will have to consider whether or not Thailand has the potential to care for domesticated elephants to reduce their risk of extinction.  There is also the need to prevent them from the perils of physical abuse, neglect, and disease.”  Dr. Alongkorn also adds the royal initiative of King Bhumibol to “bring our elephants home” which is why an Elephant Studies Center has been established in Surin Province with the main aim of preventing mahouts from taking elephants to roam around.   

Mahouts as integral veterinary assistants  

Who better to oversee the welfare and quality of life of our elephants than mahouts?  Dr. Alongkorn realizes this and has helped train mahouts on matters related to elephants’ health and the importance of preventing diseases by prescribing medications and injections annually   

“Ideally, each elephant should have one mahout as its caregiver.  Nowadays, however, one mahout might need to care for as many as 6-7 elephants since there is still a lack of agencies that care for elephants specifically.”   

Changes of mahouts or assigning one to care for several elephants at a time may be dangerous to the caregiver, especially at times when the males are in rut.  According to Dr. Alongkorn what we hear from the news regarding mahouts being injured or even killed usually has to do with carelessness or consumption of alcoholic beverages.  He has spent many years trying to change the mindset of these mahouts and has been successful in bringing down the number of mahouts who still drink down to 5% who are drinkers whereas the number of alcoholics had been as high as 80% in the past.  

Ending elephants roaming in concrete jungles   

“In 1989 when the government shut down all the forests elephants lost their jobs and needed a livelihood leading to a large number roaming around the streets of Bangkok and its vicinity with as many as 70 elephants begging or scavenging for food.”   Many of these animals and their mahouts lived under pitiful conditions and some encountered accidents or were electrocuted.  Veterinarians worked very hard to treat the elephants for their injuries and the diseases they contracted from being in unfamiliar urban conditions.  The experts called for people to take part in finding solutions to the problem urging them, for example, to call the police whenever there was any incident so that the appropriate measures could be taken.  At the same time, Dr. Alongkorn and various animal rights and protection groups campaigned for twenty years to urge the parliament to finally pass the Cruelty Prevention and Welfare of Animal Act, B.E. 2557 (2014).   

With its preventive measures and strong punishments, the law was able to bring down the number of roaming elephants drastically.   

Eco and Ethical Tourism 

Elephants play a major role in eco and ethical tourism and now contribute significantly to the country’s economy.  We need, therefore, to understand how important it is to care for their welfare for the benefit and safety not only of the animals but also visitors and tourism operators.  For this, Dr. Alongkorn has the following suggestions:   

For tourism operators   

Elephants must receive proper care and welfare with food that amounts to 10% of their body weight and 200 liters of clean water per day so that they remain hydrated.  The animals should be allowed 15-20 minutes a day to soak or play in the water.  The water sources should be in areas with adequate shade for the elephants to rest and find shelter from the heat.    

Regular health and medical check-ups should be provided for the elephants to avoid diseases or being plagued by insects that could cause them to lose blood leading them to suffer from anemia and other illness. 

Paying attention to the welfare of mahouts is also important since they will be able to provide better care for the elephants if they avoid the consumption of alcohol.   

For visitors 

They should be able to understand the nature of elephants and not cause stress to the animals by teasing or bullying them.  If they wish to touch them they should do so gently and make sure they have asked the mahout to advise them on the nature of each particular elephant.   

For tourists visiting a natural park, Dr. Alongkorn offers the following advice:    

  • Drive at a speed that doesn’t exceed 30 – 40 kilometers per hour.   
  • When you encounter a wild elephant make sure to stop your movements and allow the animal to pass by safely.  Avoid any use of the horn or beaming of headlights, do not use cameras with flash, and do not make sounds that will disturb the elephants.   
  • Visitors who are there to study nature should enter the forest area only with experienced staff to get the correct advice on how to follow the trail.    
  • Refrain from consumption of meat of wild animals which is not only illegal but can also bring about diseases that are difficult to treat or cure such as tuberculosis or worms and other forms of parasites.    
  • Refrain from deforestation and harming wild elephants and make sure to adhere to the revised version of the Cruelty Prevention and Welfare for Animals Act B.E. 2562 (2019). 
  • Support various activities that benefit wildlife such as donating funds in support of institutions that promote corporate social responsibility or SDG Goals.    

Dr. Alongkorn concluded by stressing that if people realize the importance of treating wild animals appropriately and pay attention to incidence involving cruelty towards animals while supporting activities that benefit conservation in any way possible our elephants will certainly stand a better chance at coexisting with the ecosystem and other lives on earth.   

Here are some of the channels you can follow to learn more about elephants and other wildlife: 

The sense of kinship and warmth found in the Chula community is priceless and a treasure worth keeping.

Prof. Dr. Pornanong Aramwit Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Chulalongkorn University

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