Hot Weather May Have Caused Elephant to Stab Its Trainer to Death, Police Say

Experts find it highly unlikely that heat caused the elephant's aggression, but agree that climate change could lead to increased human-elephant conflict.
Elephant in Thailand stabbed and killed mahout after hauling rubberwood in hot weather.
An elephant in southern Thailand attacked its handler while hauling rubberwood on a hot day, ripping his body into two. File Photo: Katie Hollamby, Pexels

While hauling rubberwood under the hot weather, an elephant went rogue and killed its handler—also known as mahout—ripping his body into two pieces last week. 

Around noon on August 17, police officers in southern Thailand’s Phang Nga province were alerted to the death of 32-year-old Supachai Wongfaed, a local resident who had been attacked by an elephant he was working with.

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When authorities and rescue workers arrived at the scene, they found Supachai’s body in the middle of a rubber plantation, lying in a pool of blood and ripped into two pieces after being stabbed by the elephant’s tusks multiple times.

In order for rescue workers to retrieve Supachai’s body, the 20-year-old male elephant named Pom Pam was shot with a sedative dart from 500 meters away. Supachai’s body was later handed to his relatives for religious ceremonies.

He had taken the elephant to haul rubberwood on the plantation that morning, said the police, who also suspected that high temperatures caused the elephant to act out against its handler. The police did not explain why they thought the heat was to blame.

But Chase LaDue, a postdoctoral fellow in animal behavior at the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden, told Vice World News that in his studies of male elephant behavior, he found aggression between elephants rare and not influenced by temperature.

“I wouldn’t expect temperature to be a factor, especially in a place like Thailand that regularly experiences high temperatures,” he said. “Elephants are intelligent animals that we believe exhibit complexity in emotional states. The human-elephant relationship can be equally complex, and so a number of factors may have contributed to this tragic case.”

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Male elephants in Asia go into musth—a period characterized by erratic behavior and a surge in testosterone—around 20 years old, said LaDue, adding that Supachai might not have been aware if Pom Pam was entering musth. And if Pom Pam wasn’t entering musth, younger male elephants can also become aggressive as they enter sexual and social maturity.

“This may be especially true if this male wasn’t raised around other male elephants to learn social ‘manners,’” he said.

Hannah S. Mumby, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong who researches elephant behavior and human-elephant relationships, agrees. Mumby said much of elephant behavior depends on their individual environment and experiences, shaped by factors like age, personality, and sexual state.

While experts don’t think that hot weather would lead to aggression in elephants, researchers agree that climate change may create other stressors—most notably diminishing food and water supply—that could irritate wild elephants, forcing them to enter human settlements in search of resources. Such a pattern will also likely appear in Thailand, especially its northern region, researchers found. 

Mumby told Vice World News that heat can be especially dangerous for elephants’ health.

“Generally, extremely hot weather is a big issue for elephants because of their body size. Elephants can be affected by dehydration, heat stress and exhaustion in the heat,” she said. 

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Generally known to be good-natured, elephants can be prone to bouts of rage when triggered.

Just last month, another mahout in southern Thailand was gored to death in a rubber plantation by an elephant he was training. After the attack, the elephant was seen standing quietly next to the mahout’s dead body, which was ridden with tusk wounds.

In 2017, a mahout was trampled to death by a famous elephant that had appeared in movies and performed regularly at the Chiang Mai Zoo in northern Thailand. The pair had worked together for about a decade before the unexpected attack. 

“All elephants are wild, even when kept in captivity,” she said.

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