A truck rumbles to a stop in front of a large, open-air pavilion. Elephants stand under the shade of nearby teak trees. Several mahouts, the caretakers of elephants, help unload a pile of spiky vines that fills the truck bed. We are at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC) in northern Thailand. These vines, the mahouts tell me, will be used to make an herbal medicine for the elephants’ care. 

I first came to TECC in 2017, while working as a guide for student groups. I quickly noticed several interesting things. The first was that TECC had one of the most advanced elephant hospitals in the world, and one way the center treated elephants was with herbal medicine. As an ethnobotanist who studies the different ways that people use, rely on, and relate to plants, this caught my attention.

These elephants live at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center.

Elephants use their trunks to lift grasses to their mouths.

I knew that “traditional” plant-based medicine and biomedicine (or “Western” medicine) aren’t often found together.

Why did TECC use herbal medicine alongside biomedicine when caring for their elephants?

Another thing I noticed was how interested the elephants were in their herbal medicine. Elephants love sweet foods, just like humans. At TECC, they are mainly fed elephant grass, but sugarcane and sweet corn are two of their favorite snacks. 

One of the mahouts told me that the spiky vines, Tinospora crispa, are a powerful medicine for people. He encouraged me to take a tiny nibble of the bitter vine. It was intense! So bitter that I couldn’t swallow it without a drink of water.

Then the mahout tossed pieces of vine to the nearby elephants. They quickly grabbed the pieces with their trunks, crunched them between their massive teeth, and swallowed them down. Why would these sweet-loving elephants happily eat such a bitter plant? Did they know it was medicine? These questions gnawed at me, and a year and a half later, National Geographic Society gave me a grant to return to Thailand to try to find
the answers.

These are pieces of the spiky vines eaten by elephants.

I work in the field with a Karen interpreter and a master healer.

Working With Elephants

Elephants have coexisted with people as captives and companions for thousands of years in Thailand. Some cultures have closer relationships with them than others. I decided to work with a group of highland people called the Karen. They live in the mountains of northern Thailand and neighboring Myanmar. 

The Karen are famous for their knowledge of elephants. No one knows when this relationship began, but one Karen story tells of how the elephant was originally human. Then it lost its humanity and became a helper of humankind.

Traditionally, elephants played a critical role in nearly every aspect of life here, similar to the role horses play in other parts of the world. Their knowledge of the forest meant that the best way to travel long distances over land was on the back of an elephant.

Their incredible strength allowed them to move heavy objects like stones, logs, and sacks of harvested rice. Many elephants worked in the logging industry, which was very hard work. But as cars, tractors, and machines have replaced older ways of life, elephants’ usefulness has dwindled.

Logging with elephants is often considered more environmentally friendly than using machines, because elephants don’t need roads to access the jungle. But, centuries of overharvesting was threatening Thailand’s last remaining forests, so in 1989, logging was banned.

Two elephants work together to move logs.

After the ban, elephants were no longer needed for this type of work. Yet, the ancient relationship between people and elephants remained strong. People tried to find new ways to work with these incredible animals. Most elephants were moved to elephant camps for tourists, where they serve as an attraction for visitors from around the world.