In fact, he said, the best way to avoid people being killed by elephants would be to simply ban elephant trekking and other kinds of commercial exploitation of the animals during the mating season, around this time of year.
Werasit Puthipairoj spoke with The Phuket News on Wednesday (November 19) after a mahout, or elephant handler, was killed at the Phuchada Safari kraal in Naiharn the previous day by Nong Po, a 23-year-old bull elephant which was in musth.
Nong Po picked up Wittawat Salangan, 22, from Surin Province, in his trunk, slammed him to the ground and then knelt down, crushing him with his head and tusks.
That death came just two days after a similar incident in Phang Nga in which a mahout was killed and a Russian woman with an eight-month-old baby spent a terrifying 30 minutes sitting in the howdah atop the raging elephant.
Other handlers managed to tranquillise that elephant with darts and extracted the tourist and her baby safe and sound.
Mr Werasit said that trying to get an elephant in musth to work “is like people trying to ask you to work when you are sick.
“[Nong Po] was still in musth, which the camp and the mahout should have known. It was not ready to be brought out to work, especially when male elephants are more aggressive than females.”
He said when a bull elephant is in musth, oil can be seen leaking from holes next to the elephant’s ears and the ears do not move as normal. The elephant’s eyes, too, are a sign – they look aggressive.
“Breeding season normally begins around the end of rainy season because that is when food is plentiful. Camps and mahouts must be responsible and stop using an elephant until it is no longer in rut.”
However, he noted, elephants can sometimes come into rut at other times. “It depends on the environment, the animal’s physical condition and the food, which may affect its condition.”
He said a bull elephant may calm down if it can breed but if it cannot, it should be tied up in the forest away from other elephants.
“Sometimes, the male elephants choose female elephants that do not want to breed and which fight them off. The mahout must stop using the elephant [for treks] and chain it in the forest with plenty of food around it [or must feed it] for a month.”
He said “many” mahouts cut the amount of food they give their elephant when it is in rut so that they can keep using it to make money.
“Many mahouts use this ploy. They cut back the amount of food to reduce the hormones. But doing so will probably make the elephant more angry because of the hunger.
“The best way to avoid incidents like yesterday is simply to stop using elephants during the mating season.”
The Phang Nga and Phuket deaths had close similarities, Mr Werasit said, the cause being the use of bull elephants while they are in musth. The 18-year-old bull elephant, Miew, which killed the mahout in Phang Nga, was also in musth.
Asked whether the Livestock Office has any rules regarding training of mahouts and elephants, he said that the office’s register only records the name of the elephant, the elephant’s parents and owner but not details about training.
“The mahouts must know their elephants the most, control them and take care of them properly.”
He said he could not make a judgement whether the camp or the mahout was at fault in the Phuchada or Phang Nga deaths (police said the mahout Wittawat was drunk when he was killed, and had “annoyed” Nong Po), but added that “it all comes down to the morality of making money from elephants”.
He also warned visitors going to elephant camps or zoos not to tease the animals.
“If you want to give food to them, you should give it straight away, not just play with their food. That could annoy them and cause violence,” he said.