The Asian elephant has been a part of Thai society for many centuries, has had a considerable impact on Thai culture and is the official national animal of Thailand.
In the early-1900s there were approximately100,000 domesticated elephants in Thailand but by mid-2007 this had decreased to an estimated 3,456 domesticated and roughly a thousand wild elephants.
Elephants are herbivores, consuming ripe bananas, leaves, bamboo, tree bark, and other fruits. Eating occupies 18 hours of their day. They consume 100-200 kilograms of food per day. A cow (female) will eat 5.6 percent of her body weight per day. A bull (male) will eat 4.8 percent. Thus a 3,000 kg cow will consume 168 kg per day, a 4,000 kg bull 192 kg per day. As elephants can digest only 40 percent of their daily intake, the result is dung amounting to 50–60 kg daily. Elephants will not eat in unclean surroundings fouled by dung, so their instinct is to roam to a new area.
The natural habitat of the Thai elephant is in tropical forests found in the northern and western parts of the country. Each wild elephant requires an area of at least 100 km2 to ensure sufficient food. Thailand formerly was 90 percent forested but illegal logging and agriculture has reduced forest cover dramatically. Dwindling numbers of Thai elephants resulted in them being declared an endangered species in 1986. On Elephant Day 2017, the Department of National Parks announced that the number of wild elephants was rising 7-10 percent and attributed the increase to reforestation and conservation efforts.
Elephants have played a substantial role in Thai society providing manual labor in industry and farming, serving as military animals in war, royal iconography, and the tourism industry. For thousands of years, elephants were captured and trained to be a form of transport and heavy labor.
When logging in Thailand was still legal, they were used to haul heavy logs through forests, in turn this helped employ many Thai people. Since the logging industry became illegal, elephants trainers (mahouts) have had to find other ways to feed their elephants, most of them have turned to the entertainment industry and tourism. On 17 June 2010, laws were passed for elephant protection, making these acts illegal.
King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) in 1921 decreed in the Wild Elephant Protection Act that all wild elephants were the property of the government and to be managed by the Department of the Interior as the King's representative. Elephants with special features—white elephants—were to be presented to the king.
The law pertaining to domesticated elephants is the Beast of Burden Act 2482 B.E.(1939). This act classifies elephants as draught animals along with horses, donkeys, and oxen. It allows domesticated elephants to be treated as private property. This act has no additional measures for animal welfare protection. The Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act, B.E. 2535 (1992) protects wild elephants, but excludes registered draught animals.
Asian elephants have shared a close relationship with the Thai people, from being used warriors on battlefields, worshipped as religious icons, and faithful labourers to loggers. Environmental exploitation, massive landslides and mud-flows led the government to ban logging in Thailand in 1986. This lead to almost 70% of domesticated elephants being out of work, but they remained culturally significant and were a large part of the locals livelihood. After the ban on logging a lot of the elephants joined the tourist industry and became part of trekking camps and street begging. Today many elephant activists are making "ecotourism" more popular, working to free these gentle giants from work while promoting their conservation all the while while maintaining their cultural significance within Thailand.