The Fight to Protect Thailand’s Elephants

Dr. Plotnik next to one of her patients at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang, Thailand.
Dr. Plotnik next to one of her patients at
the Thai Elephant Conservation Center
in Lampang, Thailand.
Photo by Dr. Walangkhana Langkaphin

In another part of the world, Dr. Thitibon “Cherry” Plotnik finds herself eye-to-eye (or eye-to-other-parts) with elephants every day. Perhaps because her mother took her to see them when she was young, Dr. Plotnik says she’s never felt fear around elephants.

Her interest in becoming a vet was stirred in high school when she talked to a cousin who worked in the profession treating the neighborhood cats and dogs. “I always wondered what happened to wild animals when they got sick—who would take care of them?” Dr. Plotnik remembers. Elephants were particularly fascinating because they were so unique: “There are not many kinds of animals that have a hospital dedicated entirely to them,” she remarks. She attended veterinary school at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, and since then has worked exclusively with or for elephants.

 
“Working with elephants is always dangerous and you have to be very careful.”
 

Her six-year veterinary program didn’t have an exotic pet and wildlife department, but she devoted herself to extracurricular clubs, courses, and volunteer opportunities to work directly with the elephants she loved so much. After graduating, she took her first job with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. This was by no means an easy introduction—she was tasked with taking care of 25 elephants living on the property of a hotel. She also held a job in Thailand’s main elephant hospital, the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC) in Lampang. Dr. Plotnik then moved back to Bangkok to work for the Treasure Our Elephants Fund Foundation, where she traveled with a free, mobile elephant clinic to remote areas of Thailand to give captive elephants regular check-ups and necessary medical care, among other projects.

Dr. Plotnik admires the animal’s magnitude and power, where brawn is balanced by a delicate awareness of their surroundings— she describes their movements as “graceful.” She’s never had any close shaves with any of her patients, but she also never forgets that “working with elephants is always dangerous and you have to be very careful.” And while there are well-publicized examples of elephant intelligence, including the elephant paintings that are produced by the more aesthetically attuned pachyderms of Thailand, Dr. Plotnik points out that we still understand little about their behavior.

In Thailand, poaching isn’t a major concern as it is in Africa. Elephants occupy a complicated place in Thai history and culture. As the national animal, they have historically been regarded with reverence: The Thai king to this day keeps a stable of 10 holy white elephants (which are actually not white, and whose “holy” distinction takes months of palace experts’ time to discern). But the animals have also long been used as draft animals. In the mid-19th century there were an estimated 100,000 domesticated elephants in Thailand; now there are only about 7,000 total, captive and wild (most are captive). The population decline is due to the vast deforestation that took place in Thailand before a wide logging ban was placed in 1989. (Ironically, the elephants were the main source of labor for the very activity that destroyed their habitat.)

 
“… there is little room for sentimentality towards animals owned primarily to make a living.”
 

Elephants in Thailand exist in a strange limbo—wild but able to be “domesticated,” kept in the King’s stable but also in chains by the country’s most indigent. As elephant conservationist Richard Lair writes in “Gone Astray: The Care and Management of the Asian Elephant in Domesticity” about this paradox: “Cruelty is difficult to define anywhere, but especially so in Thailand, where a large and vocal urban middle class mostly espouses the same humane values as the contemporary West, while in the countryside, given the constant struggle to survive, there is little room for sentimentality towards animals owned primarily to make a living.”

Today, elephant-related businesses in Thailand are many, often focused on giving tourists an elephant experience: elephant shows, elephant riding, camps and trainings where guests learn how to “be mahouts,” or elephant caretakers (more for their benefit than the elephants’), as well as “semi-natural observations.” The line between captive and wild is sometimes hard to discern, especially for tourists, but as Dr. Plotnik points out, elephants are never truly “domesticated.”

To understand the many historical and traditional nuances while still advocating for elephants’ welfare is at the crux of Dr. Plotnik’s work. Traditionally mahouts descended from the same ethnic family; thus captured elephants, and knowledge about their care, were passed down through the generations. Nowadays, though, caring for elephants is often just a job rather than a filial duty steeped in responsibility. And that can mean a lot for the animals. “The quality of caretakers has a huge impact on the elephant’s quality of life,” Dr. Plotnik says.

At the same time, there are still mahouts who rely on traditional methods for taking care of their charges. “In the past, most elephants had to work in the deep forest. During that time, transportation and communication systems were not well developed and there were not enough vets working in the field,” Dr. Plotnik explains. Mahouts “depended on their superstitious beliefs and herbal remedies passed down from their ancestors to treat elephants.” Now, she brings modern medicine to the animals that need it, while still respecting these traditional beliefs and practices.

Dr. Plotnik’s work with elephants isn’t just in treating their maladies—she is also working on changing Thai policy regarding elephant protection. While there are many laws regarding elephants in Thailand, they’re mostly aimed at protecting owners from theft, controlling disease outbreak, or other society-related issues. Elephants fall under the same legal category as any other draft animal.

“Though a new animal welfare law was recently passed, enforcing the law for elephants can be difficult due to the logistics of managing the captive elephant population and working with elephant owners and caretakers,” she says. This is due in part to the decentralized structure of the Thai government, where regional departments form much of their own policy. Furthermore, the law doesn’t include specific provisions for elephants, something that Dr. Plotnik and her colleagues are working to develop. She envisions a Thailand with a national, legal framework for both monitoring the health and wellbeing of captive elephants and making sure the wild elephant population can flourish; where elephant caretakers are “promoted and supported with higher pay, benefits, and professional development”; and where elephant-related businesses have to maintain high standards of care for their hardworking employees.

“As a vet, I try to provide elephants with the best possible medical care, but I also work closely with my friends in academia, veterinary medicine, and conservation to improve the captive elephant situation in Thailand and ensure that elephant welfare is a high priority for everyone,” she says.

This article originally appeared in the Wild issue. For more inspiring stories about women, check out What I Learned as a Woman Traveling Alone and The Journey of a Female Sommelier: From Paris to New York.