Famous Elephant Tramples and Gores His Owner to Death in Thailand

An elephant in the Thai tourism industry. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

A performing elephant, famous for his appearances in movies and commercials, recently trampled and gored his handler to death in Thailand.

Phlai Ekasit, a 32-year-old elephant who has spent most of his life in the entertainment industry, has turned on his handler. An English-language Thai news site called Khaosod English reported that the unprompted, yet enraged Asian elephant turned toward his handler, grabbed him with his trunk, and trampled and gored the man with his feet and tusks.

According to Agence France-Presse, witnesses at Chiang Mai Zoo said elephant handler Somsak Riangngern had just unchained the animal so that Ekasit could drink and bathe. Other handlers insist that Ekasit had never been violent, and that Somsak hadn't agitated the elephant in any way that day.

There are two possible reasons that the elephant might have decided to attack his handler. One reason is that he was in musth, similar to the "rut" in deer. Like many mammals, male elephants become agitated and aggressive when their testosterone levels rise and they are ready to mate. Bull elephants will seek out female elephants and become more aggressive, advertising their fertility with loud noises and strong smells. You can easily tell if an elephant is in musth because he'll secrete a fluid from either side of his head.

Animal welfare groups like PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, suggest another motivation, or at least a compounding factor in Ekasit's violent behavior. The day Ekasit killed Somsak didn't appear to include direct harm or harassment to the elephant, but PETA Asia suggests that the stress caused by life restricted to the confines of zoos and circuses might have caused Ekasit to attack. "Is it any wonder that some of these gentle giants eventually become fed up of being chained while living in small enclosures a fraction of the size of their natural habitats and fight back?" PETA wrote in a statement following the incident.

Thailand is notorious for its elephant tourism, where foreigners pay to see, pet or ride on elephants.The global animal welfare group World Animal Protection published a report in July stating that 77 percent of the nearly 3,000 elephants that they surveyed in the Asian tourism industry were kept in "severely cruel" conditions.

The zoo, where Ekasit was under contract to stay until April, issued an apology to Somsak's family, according to the Khaosod English article. The article also states Somsak's wife was there and witnessed the death.