Elephant Trainer’s Death Spotlights Thailand’s Captivity Controversies

The famous male elephant was in musth, a hormonal state of high aggression—the latest in a long line of fatal incidents.

By Austa Somvichian-Clausen
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:42 BST
The number of elephants captured and kept for entertainment in Thailand has increased by a third ...

The number of elephants captured and kept for entertainment in Thailand has increased by a third over the last five years.

Photograph by Brent Lewin, Getty Images

An incident involving an Asian elephant named Ekasit has resulted in the death of the animal’s owner, Somsak Riengngen, in the northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai.

The elephant was unchained by Riengngen, with a mahout, or trainer, on his back. It was then that Ekasit suddenly turned back around and used his trunk to grab his owner and crush him, resulting in his death.

Ekasit is a bull, or male, elephant who was then in musth—a state of high aggression accompanied by hormonal surges. A male elephant in musth has six times the usual amount of testosterone flowing through its body.

“Working with elephants in musth is extremely dangerous,” says Joshua Plotnik, who studies Asian elephants and teaches in the animal behavior and conservation program at Hunter College in New York. “Bulls, however docile normally, can be unpredictable.”

According to zoo officials, Ekasit has appeared in Thai and foreign films, as well as several television advertisements. He is best known for appearing in the Thai martial arts film series Ong Bak. Plotnik adds that in his experience, he has not seen elephants punished for tragedies like this.

Spotlight on Elephants for Hire

But the incident has called attention to Thailand’s booming and controversial elephant tourism trade, which frequently sees the animals performing in circuses, painting, and giving rides through the jungle, among other forms of entertainment. (These zoo elephants may be the loneliest in the world.)

Violent incidents between mahouts and captive elephants happen frequently in Thailand—the Atlantic reporting at least four deaths last March alone. The magazine adds that it is tough to say how many deaths occur each year, since many don’t get reported.

With three to four thousand elephants currently living in captivity in the country, the numbers may be high. A recent report by World Animal Protection found that there are twice as many elephants in Thailand’s tourism industry as the rest of Asia combined, with many kept in cruel conditions.

“All elephants should be wild; none should be in captivity,” says Plotnik. “But that’s idealistic, and unfortunately not possible given the lack of available wild lands for elephants, the large number of elephants still living in captivity, and their importance to the economy, cultures, and traditions of Thailand.”

Finding Solutions

The solution, Plotnik says, is collaboration—across cultures, to improve the welfare of elephants in captivity as well as the conservation protocols for the animals in the wild. Through efforts from the government level down to non-profits, the standards of care for elephants in Southeast Asia can be improved, he says.

According to World Animal Protection, tourism in Thailand has doubled from 15.9 million to 32.6 million visitors between 2010 and 2016. That growth has seen a parallel increase in the number of captive elephants of 30 percent, largely to meet the needs of tourists seeking an animal experience. Yet World Animal Protection says they have measured a nine percent drop this year in the number of people who find elephant riding acceptable, compared to three years ago. (Read about where Ringling Circus’ elephants retired.)

The group says most tourists sign up for experiences with elephants because they love wild animals, yet they may be unaware of the brutality that may occur behind the scenes, both for the captive elephants and their mahouts. The trainers are often underpaid, overworked, and exposed to dangerous situations.

“Elephants are intelligent, empathetic animals, but they are also wild animals,” says Plotnik. (Watch the touching reunion of rescued elephant and her mother.)

“Respect for Thai traditions and culture means that in order to better improve the welfare of elephants living with humans, we must work together to use what we know from scientific research and veterinary medicine to take better care of them,” he says.

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