Jay Simpson is a Digital Storyteller and National Geographic Young Explorer researching our relationship with wildlife and interventions in human-wildlife conflicts. This story comes from Thailand, during a trip exploring ecotourism and wildlife that was completed in collaboration with Rafa Salvador. Read more of Jay’s stories and follow him on Instagram and Twitter.
If you love elephants, traveling to Thailand can take you up-close and personal with the objects of your affection. The elephants here are deeply integrated with the human world, having been raised in captivity by traditional caretakers, called mahouts, following thousands of years of tradition (more blog posts about this coming soon).
During my time traveling in Thailand to explore this unique relationship, I had to wonder: what does it take to feed a captive elephant? Just how much food does a Thai elephant eat in a day?
Both captive and wild elephants eat a lot, but what else would you expect from one of the largest land animals on the planet? Wild Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) can spend an average of 16-18 hours of every day eating. In the wild they forage for food, constantly searching for roots, small trees, bamboo, grasses, and any other edible plants.
To figure out what it takes to feed captive elephants, I headed to Elephant’s World, a sanctuary for elephants in Western Thailand. They take care of 21 elephants, all of which are orphans, elderly, or disabled. Sitting around the dinner table with their staff, I asked them if anyone could guess what one day’s worth of food for an elephant looked like if it was all piled together. No one knew—they were all too busy feeding all the elephants every day.
So we hatched a plan for the following day: to recruit as many of the daily visitors and staff as possible to work for over two hours collecting and piling all the food together to feed a single elephant.
To make our “Elephant Buffet” menu, we decided to base all of our calculations on one elephant: Kamoon, an older female that has been at Elephant’s World since it opened in 2008. She was born in 1949 and spent many years begging on the streets of various major Thai cities and working at trekking camps for tourists. She also has notably wide hips and a dependable appetite.
Elephants eat roughly 10 percent of their bodyweight in food every day, so to start, we knew we needed about 360 kg (nearly 800 lbs!) of food for our lucky 3,500 kg (7,700 lb!) elephant. And while all the elephants forage for wild food (bamboo, leaves, grasses, tree bark, etc) from 6pm-7am daily, we would only be photographing the food provided by keepers for the elephants. In the end, the menu came to:
Bana Grasses 30kg (66lbs)
Banana Trees 30kg (66lbs)
Watermelons 30kg (66lbs)
Cucumbers 30kg (66lbs)
Bananas 30kg (66lbs)
Pumpkins 30kg (66lbs)
Yam Beans / Sweet Potato 30kg (66lbs)
Corn 30kg (66lbs)
Pineapples 30kg (66lbs)
Papaya 30kg (66lbs)
(Wild Foods) 60kg (132lbs)
TOTAL 3,60kg (794lbs)
Next we got out the scale, a lot of baskets of food, and started weighing everything. Once weighed, we placed the food in a pile for the photograph. As we worked I noticed how many languages were being spoken: Thai, English, Dutch, and more as we all worked together to make it happen!
As impressed as I was with our huge pile of food (and that Kamoon eats that much every day!), I was struck with a few observations that changed the way I saw this completely.
This cost a lot of money. In total, excluding the wild foods the elephants forage every night, Elephant’s World estimates the cost of all the prepared food to be 2,910 Thai Baht (around $80 USD) daily. And this is just one of their 21 elephants. Additionally, I realized how challenging this must be for other mahouts that keep elephants to make money—that’s a lot of income spent every day to keep your elephant healthy. I can see why so many captive elephants in Thailand may be facing a lack of food or malnutrition from not having access to a proper diet.
Historically, mahouts avoided these costs by keeping the elephants in the forest, allowing them to browse frequently throughout the day and overnight. But in the last hundred years Thailand has lost around 60 percent of their forests, making it difficult for mahouts to find adequate space and vegetation for their elephants to forage. Even as Elephant’s World moves to farm more of their on food on their land, they struggle to have enough land to farm on. And they’re not the only ones—mahouts all over Thailand face a lack of vegetation and farm lands on which to grow their own foods.
By investigating “how much food does a Thai elephant eat in a day?” I was reminded just how connected food is to health, welfare, and our environment—for elephants and humans alike. This pile of elephant food weighing just shy of 800 lbs was an impressive sight to see, but now that I’m back home in the USA, I don’t think I’ll ever see a shopping cart full of groceries the same way again.
I’d like to acknowledge a special thanks to Elephant’s World for their support in creating this story and invitation to visit their sanctuary in Kanchanabui Province, Thailand.