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Thai-Danish teamwork: Keeping elephants healthy and well

31.01.2018  10:54
Elephant welfare in Thailand is on the rise, thanks to a unique Danish-Thai team who for decades have made sure that more elephants get access to free healthcare through mobile elephant clinics. Next step for elephant welfare has been to promote a new elephant friendly training that seems to be quickly adopted all over Thailand and the neighbouring countries.

Domestic elephants in poor health roaming the streets of Bangkok was what inspired a Thai-Danish initiative nearly 20 years ago. It soon became an exciting journey with an important agenda that is still relevant today. A team of Thais and Danes made it their quest to improve the conditions for elephants and elephant keepers, called mahouts, and created an innovative and long-term solution to the serious problems with poor elephant welfare in Thailand. The concept of Mobile Elephant Clinics (MEC) was brought to life.

The Danish Ambassador to Thailand, Uffe Wolffhechel, and his wife Susie A. Ruff met the founders of the Mobile Elephant Clinics and learned about the successes of the Thai-Danish project. The Danish and Thai co-founding team led by wildlife vet Dr. Bjarne Clausen of the Danish Animal Welfare Society and Dr. Taweepoke Angkawanish of the National Elephant Institute (NEI) described how the initiative is a melting pot of Danish innovative technology and Thai local knowledge and practices.

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A two-legged concept
After observing the practices of the Thais, the founders of the visionary project defined two dominating focal points. The first was to provide mobile vet care for domestic elephants based on the notion that it is easier to move the vet than the five-ton heavy animal. Later the team behind the MECs realised that also the training of the elephants plays an essential part in reaching better welfare for the majestic animals. Therefore, they focused the second part of the collaboration on the training of the mahouts and introducing new techniques that center around animal welfare. For this purpose, the team worked together with Human Elephant Learning Programs, who had developed innovative training methods for elephants based on many years of research in the field of horse training.

In Thailand, the majority of the elephants in captivity are privately owned and used for plantation logging and working within the tourism industry. Most owners may afford neither to transport the elephant to the veterinarian hospitals nor to pay for the treatment. However, the initiators decided that the assistance, vet care and medicine should be free for all elephant owners thus increasing the chance that more elephants will receive the needed attention and treatment.

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Training the elephants - and the mahouts
Working with elephants in Thailand is a complex matter across culture, economy, tradition and history. Wildlife vet Dr. Bjarne Clausen acknowledges that it takes time to change Thailand’s more than 4,000 years old traditions with elephant keeping and training. Now, however, Denmark and Thailand are promoting new elephant friendly training methods based on positive reinforcement. The new form of training is an important step forward regarding animal welfare in the country and Denmark is a crucial partner in this positive development. 
The increasing demand for animal welfare and responsible tourism by the tourists themselves has resulted in an even more urgent need for re-thinking the traditional training methods of elephants in Thailand. Western tourists criticise the lack of elephant welfare and many choose to boycott irresponsible tourist attractions that involve elephants. According to Dr. Bjarne Clausen, the main aim should be to create better alternatives to the way elephants are trained and treated in Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia.

The concepts of MECs and elephant friendly training are well received among the Thais and the ongoing work of the Thai-Danish partnership is quickly spreading to other Asian countries such as Myanmar, Lao and India. With help from the Danish Animal Welfare Society, Thailand is well on the way to become a visionary frontrunner in the race for better elephant wellbeing and health.

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FACTS:

  • MEC (Mobile Elephant Clinic) was founded in 1999
  • There are approx. 2,700 captive elephants in Thailand
  • The MECs travel over 70,000 km/year to treat the elephants in Thailand
  • The elephant friendly training methods are now being implemented in several Asian countries
  • The project is currently funded by the Danish Animal Welfare Society