24 May 2024

Single-Use Species: The Impact of Plastic & Other Environmental Waste on Elephants in Thailand

The catastrophic impact caused by the human species on the environment of our planet is indisputable. Anthropogenic, or man-made, climate change is now progressing at an extremely alarming rate, and the future of all species is in jeopardy. In addition to overall climate change, humans routinely cause habitat and ecosystem destruction, pollute soil, oceans, and waterways with toxic chemicals, and are responsible for the creation of vast quantities of waste due to their use of non-recyclable materials, such as single-use plastic. As a species which is uniquely sensitive to each of these hazards, Asian elephants are now in a position of extreme vulnerability, and only humans can protect them from tragedy.

Asian elephants are able to survive in a variety of different habitats, and can feed on a diverse range of vegetation, both of which are traits which offer some resilience against the effects of environmental change. However, a number of other factors contribute to their sensitivity – and overall low adaptability – to a changing climate. A declining population, slow reproduction rate, limited genetic variation, and a high instance of infant mortality at temperatures above 24°C add to their vulnerability. Furthermore, their reliance on large quantities of fresh water means that they will suffer habitat fragmentation in times of drought, or be restricted to a less-than-optimal area due to the presence of fresh water. Water shortages will likely also cause human-elephant conflict to increase, and allow poachers to more easily locate wild elephants.

Although the negative consequences of climate change on Asian elephant populations is likely to be clearly evident in the next several decades, elephants currently face a number of shorter-term dangers from pollution and environmental hazards created by humans. In some parts of Thailand, months of dangerously toxic levels of air pollution are an annual routine. Air pollution is as dangerous to other species as it is to humans, and can harm elephants on a direct, biological level, as well as contributing to a decrease in the availability and quality of their food sources. Another danger to elephants is the chemical waste produced by human industry and agriculture. In India in 2011, a wild adult female elephant was found dead beside an abandoned shed on a cardamom plantation. It was found that the elephant had been poisoned by pesticide residue which had not been properly disposed of, likely by drinking water which had collected in a barrel which had previously been used to dilute a variety of pesticides.

An increasingly reported problem for not just Asian elephants, but many species of wild animals, is the consumption of plastic, particularly single-use plastic bags. Plastic bags or pieces of plastic are generally consumed accidentally, for instance when a discarded bag becomes mixed up with food, or consumed mistakenly, such as when a plastic bag smells to an animal like a food source it once contained, or when a predator mistakes a plastic bag for prey. Plastic bags can cause distress and pain, or even kill an animal by becoming tangled around a body part or causing strangulation, but in the case of large mammals such as elephants, injuries and deaths related to single-use plastic bags most often occur due to ingestion. Ingested plastic may become lodged in the throat, resulting in suffocation, or get stuck in the stomach or intestines, causing pain and illness, and sometimes resulting in starvation.

In recent times, there have been a large number of reports of wild elephant excrement entangled with plastic. While this is an extremely concerning development, it does indicate that not every instance of an elephant consuming plastic is fatal. Unfortunately, there are also a large number of reports of – usually wild – elephants dying as a result of plastic consumption throughout South-East and South Asia. In a particularly tragic event in Sri Lanka in 2018, six wild elephants were found dead at a landfill site where they were reported to forage for food daily. An autopsy conducted by a local veterinarian found large amounts of single-use plastic in the stomachs or intestines of all six elephants, and ruled this as their likely cause of death.

Sadly, this is far from an isolated incident in Sri Lanka, where elephant deaths due to consumption of plastic in landfills – as well as accidental poisonings and human-elephant conflict – occur with alarming frequency. In an eight-year period, as many as twenty elephants died after ingesting plastics at a single garbage dump in Ampara district, according to local veterinarians. Sri Lanka has taken steps to reduce the risk of further plastic-related wildlife fatalities. After initially banning bags made of non-biodegradable plastic in 2017 due to fears of flash flooding caused by a build-up of discarded plastic, Sri Lanka has since expanded the restrictions. The import, manufacture, and sale of all single-use plastics – including plastic cutlery and artificial flowers – have all now been banned or restricted, after a succession of incidents in which wild elephants and deer were found to have died as a result of consuming plastic products. Though single-use plastic bags are a large part of the problem, single-use non-biodegradable plastic in any form can be fatal. Also in 2018, a 20-year-old female wild elephant was found dead in Kerala, India. Her cause of death was found to be an accidentally-consumed three-metre-long piece of single-use plastic. The plastic sheet had lodged in her alimentary canal, causing internal bleeding and painful, slow organ failure.

Tragically, due to rampant use and improper disposal of plastic products worldwide, the issue of fatal consumption by wildlife – including elephants – is not geographically limited, but exists everywhere on the planet. Nowhere is safe from human waste products, not even seemingly pristine national parks. In 2020, the body of a 3.5 tonne wild elephant was found in Khao Khitchakut National Park in central Thailand. The elephant was a male, around twenty years of age, and likely only newly mature and dominant enough to begin its breeding life. An autopsy found that a combination of single-use plastic bags and assorted other plastic waste had caused a blockage in the animal’s intestines, which subsequently led to a fatal infection.

Thailand is one of the world’s major producers of plastic, and uses an extraordinary amount of plastic each year, including single-use plastic bags. The country has, for quite some time, retained a place in the top ten countries worldwide as ranked by mass of “mismanaged plastic waste” and is viewed as a major contributor to plastic pollution in oceans. Estimates of annual plastic bag use in Thailand vary widely, but some sources report the number to be 45-70 billion, with others claiming that it is even higher. In recognition of the unnecessary damage this plastic waste is causing to the environment – and indeed, the well-being of Thailand’s national animal – the Thai government implemented a complete ban on the use of plastic bags by major retailers. The ban, which began to be enforced on 01 January, 2020, has thus far resulted in a significant reduction of single-use plastic bag waste, but Thailand still has a long way to go before it reaches an internationally satisfactory low level of use and improper disposal. Unfortunately, while biodegradable plastic bags and other products may be a viable solution for reducing long-term environmental plastic pollution, until the plastic degrades, it still presents a serious health risk to wildlife species which may become entangled in or ingest it.

Thailand pushed even further with the plastic bag ban (which was accompanied by a nationwide “Say No” to plastic campaign) in 2021, when smaller retailers, restaurants, markets, and similar businesses were required to cease using single-use plastic bags. These measures have undoubtedly resulted in a decreased risk of injury and death to wild animals, but we must all be mindful about our use and proper disposal of plastic products – avoiding them if possible – to ensure that our planet remains healthy, and to give every species a fighting chance at surviving the difficult times ahead.

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is wholeheartedly committed to environmental protection and wildlife conservation, and our team has worked hard to implement a number of sustainability initiatives, including on-site solar panels, recycling projects, and frequent clean-up efforts. In recent years, EJS has also significantly reduced the use of single-use plastics at all of our locations, and we are proudly working towards a future zero-waste goal!


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