A truck stops in front of a large, open-air tent. Elephants stand under the shade of trees. Mahouts caretakers of the elephants, unload spiky vines from the truck. We are at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC) in northern Thailand. These vines will be made into herbal medicine for the elephants.

These elephants live at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center.

Elephants use their trunks to lift grasses to their mouths.

I first came to TECC in 2017 as a guide for student groups. I noticed many interesting things. TECC had one of the most advanced elephant hospitals in the world. One of the ways they treated elephants was with herbal medicine. Since I am an ethnobotanist, this appealed to me. I study the ways that people use plants. I knew that plant-based medicine and biomedicine (or “Western” medicine) aren’t often found together.

Next, I noticed the elephants’ interest in their herbal medicine. I knew that elephants love sweet foods. Sweet corn and sugarcane are favorite snacks here. But, elephants will also eat spiky vines, although they are very bitter. Spiky vines are powerful medicine. Did the elephants know this was medicine? A year and a half later, I returned to Thailand to try to find 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 lived among people for thousands of years in Thailand. I decided to work with a group of people called the Karen. They live in the mountains of Thailand and the neighboring country of Myanmar.

The Karen are famous for working with elephants. How did this bond begin? One story tells of how the elephant was originally human. Then it lost its humanity. It became a helper of humankind.

Elephants played a role in nearly every part of life here. They knew the forest. So, they were the best way to travel long distances 
over land.

Their strength allowed them to move heavy objects like logs. But as cars and machines replaced them, the elephants’ usefulness has fallen. Also, after centuries of too much logging, forests became threatened. In 1989, logging was banned.

Two elephants work together to move logs.

Elephants were no longer needed for this type of work. Today, most elephants are in elephant camps for tourists.