Elephants on the Streets of Thailand


Forestry in Thailand depreciated massively during the last century and with it the number of elephants in the country dropped dramatically too. Most working elephants were no longer needed to haul logs after Thailand passed a law in 1990 banning domestic logging in its rain forests, leaving hundreds of elephants and their mahouts (handlers) redundant. In 1950, 70% of Thailand’s land area was rainforest and by 1990 that figure had fallen to just 15%. Ivory poachers also severely reduced the number of elephants living in a country where the elephant is so highly revered by its people. In the last 100 years the number of elephants in Thailand has fallen from over 100,000 to less than 5,000 today.

Elephants have a long history and tradition in Thailand with strong bonds to royalty, religion and even war. After the reduction of forestry logging in Thailand 20 years ago, more and more opportunist mahouts brought their elephants into the tourist cities to earn money from nightly forays parading their elephants in the popular tourist haunts. Bags of sugar cane are sold at 20 baht a time to holidaymakers, who unwittingly only encourage the mahouts to risk the elephant’s life and limbs on the busy streets of Bangkok, and other Thai resorts and major cities.

In July this year Bangkok authorities banned elephants from its streets, imposing fines of 10,000 baht ($325) on anyone caught feeding or parading the animals in the city.  The ban was  brought in to keep the streets clean, protect livelihoods from damage and aid free flowing traffic. It seems the elephants own safety was not one of the cardinal reasons. I’m unaware if the ban stretches to the whole of the country ( can someone answer that) because on my recent Thailand holiday it was evident it didn’t.

All the photos in this post were taken in Nong Khai during an afternoon on my recent trip there. I was amazed and slightly shocked by the amount of elephants I saw in both Nong Khai and Udon Thani during my two week stay. I did take several pictures of mahouts and their elephants along the very busy road between Udon Thani’s two night markets, but regular readers will know I lost those shots along with my camera on my journey home to the UK.

Outside of Bangkok there seems to be little being done to take elephants out of the concrete urban jungle and put them back into their natural habitat. Elephants have been domesticated by man but now the master must give them a little of their freedom back. In Thailand’s national parks and elephant camps they still have to endure daily tourist treks and shows but that is better than dodging cars, trucks, tuk tuks and potholes.

Those tourists who are heading to Thailand over the coming months should remember that feeding elephants in the cities is not an act of kindness, more a kind of role playing in a game of animal torture. Elephants love mud and water, rich green forests, berries and fruit. The cities give them heavy traffic, narrow walkways, noise and mayhem.

When it comes to Thailand’s street elephants being cruel by denying them food is the biggest act of kindness you will ever bestow on these magnificent giant animals.

Please don’t feed the elephants on the city streets.

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© 2010, Martyn. All rights reserved.

26 thoughts on “Elephants on the Streets of Thailand

  1. Deano – I know a lot of Thais do feed the elephants but getting the message across to them about the harm it does would only fall on death ears. Hopefully the tourists will learn not otherwise. Thanks for your input.

  2. Martyn my thoughts exactly. Having seen the wild version in Kuiburi NP it just makes my blood boil when I see the beasts being paraded around city streets.

    Even more annoying is seeing stupid tourists paying to feed them and have a photo taken.

    That said the Thais do bugger all to stop it despite the alleged fines etc.
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  3. Mike I saw quite a few elephants on the streets during my holiday, certainly a lot more than ever before. I really do think the tourist problem lies with the newbies and once a year type of holidaymaker, they are easy pickings for the elephant gangs.

  4. I’m pretty sure the ban only extends to Bangkok itself, and the only reason it became an issue is because HRH set-up an NGO style initiative to get elephants back into the wild. The police response was to announce fines for tourists who feed elephants, which is an ideal way for police to make money and do nothing about elephants on the streets. How many tourists research their “elephant laws” before they come to Thailand?

    In any case, the elephant is even more visible than child pornography so it s clear the police are allowing it to happen in return for sizeable and regular payments from mahouts and vendors.

  5. Mark – I have thought for a long time that travel companies should hand out do’s and don’t brochures to people booking trips aboard to whatever country. Thailand has a lot of taboo type things which the average tourist knows nothing about. The elephant laws would definitely be one for any list.

    I thought about suggesting the irregular payments between the police and elephant gangs but had absolutely no proof of it. I reckon you are probably right.

  6. Hi Martyn, we would regularly see elephants on the road outside our old house in Lopburi. I do think it is sad that elephants are reduced to being dragged around the cities for tourists amusement. Mind you, where we lived I was the only foreigner and it was the local Thais who came out to feed the elephants.
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  7. Paul I asked Wilai what she thought about the elephants on the streets of Nong Khai and Udon Thani. I was expecting a “they have to do it to earn money” type of response, she surprised me my saying it was wrong and the elephants should be in the jungle. Perhaps the Thais are slowly coming around to our way of thinking.

  8. Paul sorry about the late reply but I’ve been reading all about SEO through various sites on the net. It’s an absolute science and proving to be a bit beyond me. Still as you can see I now know how to spell it right, that’s some progress.

    I’ve seen many cattle trucks pass through Ban Dung and they aren’t a pretty sight. Then again here in the West the transportation of cattle might be more comfy but the end result is the same. It’ll take more than Ban Dung to put me off a good cheeseburger.

  9. Martyn, Last I heard the the BMA is working with other provinces and the government to enact a country wide elephant law. Haven’t heard anything about it in 5 months or so though.

    I believe Pattaya adopted a similar code as well but I’m not exactly sure. I haven’t seen any elephants on the streets since I’ve been here so thats a good sign.

    Personally I think it should be extended to the elephant shows and elephant riding as well but that will likely never happen.
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  10. Talen I know how much you admire elephants and the way you have promoted goodwill to them on TLOS. It’s good to hear you haven’t seen any elephants in Pattaya so far, perhaps they have banned them from the streets. Let’s hope the Bangkok ban spreads nationwide because I was shocked at the amount of elephants I saw on the streets during my short stay in Isaan.

  11. I think elephants belong in the jungle, if they are not free they at least have to be in a decent place. Lovely animals.

  12. รถมือสอง – Thanks for your comment, it echoes Wilai’s thoughts 100%. The elephants want grass under their feet not concrete.

  13. I haven’t seen elephants in Bangkok for awhile. I’ve heard that most hung around the Suk/higher expat areas.

    When I lived on Ari, there was a baby who’d amble in every now and again. I say ‘baby’, but it was almost as big as the coffee shop it leaned against. During one of its visits I raced off to get my camera as the blinkers on its butt were too tempting not too.

    The only elephant I’ve seen in a residential area recently was at the Bat Wat (post coming soon). I was the only westerner there (the local kids were going crazy calling out ‘farang’) so I’m guessing the elephant was there for Thai tourists, not western.
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  14. Catherine, I feel even more sorry for the baby elephants, they must get very confused getting hauled around the cities without their mothers.

    Some of the coffee shops I’ve seen in Thailand wouldn’t stand up to an elephant leaning against them. Blinkers on an elephant’s butt….that caught launch an advert or two.

    Reading some of the comments before and now yours, it would seem the Thais are as guilty as the farang when it comes to encouraging the mahouts to bring the elephants into town.

  15. Deano – Thanks for the update, elephants are obviously doing the circuit in Chiang Mai. I didn’t know about the red light on the tail, I’m sure they didn’t have them in Udon Thani. Perhaps they’ll give them license plates next.

  16. I’m guessing that the small red blinkers are to protect the elephants.

    Elephants are often taken around by their handlers at night. With the colour and dullness of their skin, they can easily blend into the shadows.

    Just imagine roaring home on your motorbike after the bars close. But instead of the awaited promise of getting tucked up in bed, you find yourself stuck up an elephants hind quarters.

    Perhaps larger red blinkers should be suggested. Care to make a whip round for a donation?
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  17. Catherine the thought of riding into an elephant’s behind has put me off making some breakfast. It puts a whole new meaning to the Elephant Man.

    Something does need to be done to protect the Nelly’s of Thailand and a nationwide law banning them from the cities and towns would be the perfect start.

    Elephants behind….perhaps I won’t put marmite on my toast.

  18. Catherine my marmite jar does have an expiry date stamp on it, and so in order to not waste it I have to now bury Elephants on the Streets of Thailand from my thoughts. I hope you are feeling better.

  19. Ironically the ban in Bangkok has always been in effect, somebody finally decided to enforce it again.

    Enforcement of this issue has been on and off for the last 10 years.

  20. nocturn thanks for your comment and information on elephants on the streets of Thailand. The authorities have obviously been turning a blind eye for a long long time.

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