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The subject of these conclusions is the problems faced by 16,000 domesticated elephants in eleven Asian countries, particularly the many problems experienced across international borders and amenable to shared solutions. Few specific examples of problems are given below, trusting that the reader has already read the country profiles. Few proposed solutions are cited from the literature simply because so little has been written about solving contemporary problems in elephant keeping in Asia, and almost nothing about management at national, much less international, scale.

These conclusions are often very broad because of generalizing about eleven countries (or blocs therein). But since keeping conditions are similar everywhere, it is only natural that some problems are nearly universal: inadequate registration, low birth rates, poor veterinary care, inadequate budgets, etc. Developing India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand share a surprising number of development-related problems which allow easy generalization: falling numbers, devastating unemployment, the non-involvement of livestock departments, deteriorating mahoutship, etc. Myanmar evades many generalizations by having retained so much of the past, and Indonesia often defies the norm by having burst out of nowhere into a unique management situation.

The first conclusion must be that the modest country ‘profiles’ in this book are only a preliminary step. Ideally, full country overviews would be written by specialists, medical care being covered by veterinarians and legal status written by lawyers. Country overviews should be written by nationals of that country since only they can hope to properly survey the conditions of domesticated elephants. Ideally, all future country overviews would be written to a standard format, both to facilitate access and to allow for easy comparisons between countries. (Country overviews should be professionally edited so as to maximize readability.) Country overviews should be regularly updated and expanded.

The following conclusions adhere to the same fourteen core subject headings as the country profiles: wild elephants, distribution of domesticated elephants, numbers of domesticated elephants, legal status, registration, institutions involved, veterinary care and health, recruitment, prices, the market, employment, ownership, mahoutship, and cultural dimensions.

Wild elephants

There are probably 38,000-48,000 wild elephants in thirteen countries in Asia. Largely as a result of development and deforestation, wild elephant populations are in decline everywhere, in some places inexorably. Worse than the fall in absolute numbers is that ever more populations are becoming splintered, whether as larger groups or small ‘pocketed herds’. The inevitable result is increased human-elephant conflict, reproductive isolation, blocked migration routes, and many other threats. Some population biologists say that nowhere in Asia is there a single minimum viable population, a contiguous group of elephants safe from inbreeding over the long term. Since new protected areas are virtually impossible to gazette in countries with masses of land-hungry rural poor - virtually all range states - the wildlife conservation community is increasingly forced to turn to building awareness among villagers and other indirect conservation methods.

Distribution of domesticated elephants

Within the more developed countries - Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka - populations are shifting geographically in response to environmental damage. The primary thrust is to move out of recently deforested areas into remaining forest.

Numbers of domesticated elephants

Just as with wild elephants, Asia’s 16,000 domesticated elephants are steadily declining in numbers. Birth rates are low everywhere (and next to zero in Sri Lanka and most of India), and there are few legal recruits from the wild because capture has been banned in all major countries except for a few animals caught in the name of wildlife management. Even more ominous than falling numbers, most populations are growing moribund with the elephants of increasingly higher average age, a condition especially worrying with cows since the number and age of breeding females are key factors in a population’s reproductive health. Nonetheless, no matter how rapid the slide of domesticated elephants, their decline is everywhere much slower than that of wild elephants; in most countries the future will steadily bring a ‘domesticated-to-wild elephant ratio’ much higher than the past. (Sometimes, tragically, that high ratio will have come about very quickly because of a plummeting wild population, as in Vietnam.) Heading into the troubled future, each country’s domesticated elephants cannot help but pose ever larger potential in the conservation of its wild elephants.

· See “Domesticated-to-wild elephant ratio,” page 26.

· See “The role of domesticated elephants in wild elephant conservation,” page 9.

Legal status

The technical legal status of domesticated elephants - whether they are classified as a wild animal or a domestic animal - everywhere has very little practical effect on either law enforcement or management on the ground. Even in countries where law drafted to reflect CITES classifies them as wild animals, domesticated elephants in private hands are everywhere considered to be private property by long-standing customary law. Legal protection as a wild animal is of little value to the elephant in the face of traditional views towards livestock. In any Asian country in 1996, anybody with the money can buy an elephant and then do anything he likes with it, to the point of overwork and even abuse. Some countries have a few mild strictures, no more than nuisances to owners, about registration, travel permits, grazing permits, etc.; but the only major restriction is that no private owner can sell elephants out of the country.

How law assigns jurisdiction is all-important. To most Westerners, what seems important are the stipulations of the law, the obligations imposed and the penalties inflicted: you must register at this age, you must not perform this sort of work, etc. Establishing such tight controls to replace customary law is the ultimate conservation goal, but when considered pragmatically the most important issue is simply the agency to which the law assigns jurisdiction.

India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia all have a national wildlife law written or amended largely to reflect and implement CITES; total jurisdiction for wild animals, including those in captivity, devolves to the wildlife agency within the forest department. (Thailand also has a CITES-supporting wildlife law but that law very specifically exempts domesticated elephants from wild status and assigns jurisdiction to the Ministry of Interior.) Conceptually and ethically, wild status would seem both correct and desirable. Elephants kept in domesticity in Asian villages deserve wild status as much as elephants kept under comprehensive legal protection in Western zoos; the rightness of wild status is bolstered because most traditionally-kept domesticated elephants would probably survive if released into the wild.

Unfortunately, in practice the legal classification of domesticated elephants as wild animals shunts total responsibility for them onto wildlife agencies, a decision which invariably deprives elephants of veterinary care and waives of any responsibility other much needed government agencies, especially livestock and law enforcement agencies. Wildlife agencies usually lack the motivation to protect domesticated elephants and invariably lack the funds, the veterinarians, and the animal husbandry expertise needed to provide hands-on care.

The dictates of science and contemporary ecological ethics demand that the domesticated Asian elephant be classified as a wild animal. Common sense, however, says that apart from its nightly release to feed, the domesticated elephant’s everyday life is unlike that of wild elephants but much like the lives of domestic draft animals, with whom it shares many man-inflicted problems: overwork, malnutrition, work-related injuries, poor veterinary care, low reproduction, and declining utility in a rapidly changing world.

The ultimate aim of any law must be to effectively improve living conditions for individual animals. The automatic assumption that domesticated elephants are best off classified as a wild animal usually condemns them to a law designed for wild animals kept in confinement for public display or waiting to be exported or to be harvested as animal products. The regulation of work, for example, is a prime need in domesticated elephant conservation, but every national wildlife law, quite understandably, entirely fails to address the question of animals put to work.

The only solution is to realize that the domesticated elephant is neither totally a wild animal nor totally a domesticated animal but rather possesses inextricably interwoven aspects of each. To reflect this unusual dualism, every Asian country should ideally enact a special law applicable only to domesticated elephants, regulating work and other unique aspects of domesticated elephant life. The law should spread jurisdiction amongst essential agencies according to the resources needed: forest and wildlife departments (land, releases, wild orphans, illegally captured wild elephants, etc.), livestock departments (veterinary care, food supplements, inspection stations, insurance schemes, etc.), and law enforcement agencies (illegal capture, border controls, fraudulent registration, etc.). In countries with old and monolithic civil service institutions, only a strong special law tailored solely for domesticated elephants will be able to break down vested interests and force unprecedented inter-ministry cooperation. Any special laws for domesticated elephants should very specifically provide scope for the participation of NGOs.

Each country’s existing law, no matter how inappropriate or flawed, remains important simply because it is all that is available at present. A review of relevant national law, including repealed laws which established precedent, is badly needed in all Asian countries. All national laws regarding elephants, wild and domesticated, should be translated into English by nationals conversant with the law and then supplemented with suitable commentary, analysis, case studies of court proceedings, etc. All translations and commentary should be published, preferably in the same format across Asia. Seminars could usefully explore shared problems and solutions. Another useful effort would be to draft a model law so as to delicately influence countries wishing to create new law.

· See “Legal status” for Thailand (page 180) and India (54) for long discussions on law.

· See “Pre-packaged programs: Law, registration, and veterinary care,”page 259.


Registration, including the ability to identify individual elephants, is everywhere the essential first step enabling hands-on management such as veterinary care, work regulations, etc. Beyond protecting domesticated elephants, rigorous mandatory registration would also prevent or reduce illegal international trade and the illegal capture of wild elephants by making ownership impossible, at least so long as illegal possession carried severe penalties including confiscation.

Only Myanmar, Thailand, and Sri Lanka actually register their domesticated elephants. In Myanmar, the Myanma Timber Enterprise and the Smithsonian Institution (National Zoological Park) are presently compiling a database from MTE log books for individual elephants, and their shared experience and expertise would be invaluable in any international registration effort. In Thailand and Sri Lanka official registration efforts are incomplete and very little biodata is collected. Indonesia has a sort of built-in registration simply because nearly all domesticated elephants are owned by government; very little biodata is collected in usable form. Given this relatively clean slate, it would make great sense for all Asian countries to use the same standard forms and procedures, thus creating a database for the whole continent.

Government elephants are the easy and logical place to begin, wrote Lair (1992) in the course of suggesting an international registry for domesticated elephants. He added, “The registration of privately-owned elephants will be a very slow and complicated business requiring new legislation, licensing, massive funding, unprecedented inter-agency efforts, and tens of thousands of man-hours in the field.” Although a daunting task, the secret to registration is quite simple: develop the best methodology, get as many people and institutions as possible involved, and then start registering - and then keep at it. The day that the last domesticated elephant in Asia is registered will be both a very happy and a very sad occasion.

Registration could and, in the more developed countries, probably should lead to the licensing of both owners and mahouts. Ideally, prospective buyers should be legally required to prove their competence to keep elephants.

International Registry of Domesticated Asian Elephants

A hypothetical global effort to register elephants might well be called the International Registry of Domesticated Asian Elephants (IRDAE). The first step of the IRDAE would be to develop a standard registration form specifically relevant to Asian field conditions; that form and its instructions should subsequently be translated into national languages. All national-language registration forms should also include English so as to be accessible to international experts. There should be a short form and a long form, the short form for quick field sightings and whenever data is scant, the long form including a wide range of physical, social and economic parameters. Optional supplementary forms should deal with veterinary matters (medcal history, body condition, etc.), socio-economic parameters (prices, work performed, owners’ economic status, etc.), and science (DNA fingerprinting, estrus cycles, parasitology, etc.).

Designing the registration form should utilize the support and expertise of many individual experts and national institutions, primarily forest and livestock departments, and many international institutions, e.g., the Asian Elephant Species Survival Plan, the IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group (AESG), the IUCN/SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group (CBSG), The Elephant Managers Association, the International Species Inventory System (ISIS), the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo, the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AAZPA, or AZA), etc. Government institutions should be encouraged to actively participate, but they will never initiate an international registry without outside stimulation and support.

A collective international effort to create a standard form would be extremely efficient and cost-effective, freeing eleven countries from having to independently invent the wheel - or, more likely, to leave it uninvented. The goal is to be able to offer to every country a sophisticated but easy to use ‘registration-census-database package’. The IRDAE is, at least in the development stage, a very inexpensive idea which would bring benefits all out of proportion to its costs. Implementing the package could be expensive in some countries, but designing and distributing it would be cheap.

Registering all of the elephants in Asia might initially seem preposterous but looks more reasonable when seen at a national level. Thailand and even more Myanmar have broad registration efforts which could easily be included and built on. The Lao PDR is a likely site for a model program because its livestock department is highly motivated and has already done a rough survey; the population of just over a thousand elephants is small enough to track down but large enough to test procedures and database software. Indonesia would be very easy to register because its elephants are nearly all in six government-owned sites; better record keeping is needed for departmental purposes so both the internal and international goals could be achieved with one effort. Sri Lanka could be easy since there are only about 500-600 elephants; owners have proved cooperative to various non-government studies, and there are many NGOs and academic facilities ready to help. India should be easy because in theory - as decreed by law - each state forest department should already have stacks of declarations of ownership from which to start. Vietnam’s domesticated elephants should be easy to register; though geographically remote, elephants are in but few locales and their owners are linked by tribe and family.

Lair (1982) wrote, “One of the most critical needs for realistic, long term management of domestic elephants is a good understanding of their population dynamics, including accurate projections or estimates of future populations.” An integral aim of the registration process would be for each country to amass data suitable for modelling possible future population dynamics by varying key biological parameters such as the inter-calving interval, median age of cows, etc. Biological factors do not exist in isolation, so the pivotal human socio-economic factors must also be elucidated: prices, supply and demand, the availability of work, etc.

Prognostications about the future are difficult when so little is known about the present, but even now there is sufficient data to develop models, to identify the data required, and to start exploring the envelope of the future. It is time to begin the groundwork essential to realistic planning.

Inducements to voluntary registration

Forced official registration efforts virtually always result in failure, with many elephant owners evading registration. Government lists are incomplete everywhere because, first, elephant owners and mahouts generally fear and avoid civil servants, and, second, because owners gain absolutely nothing from registering. In Thailand in 1994 only 77% of elephants listed in a long-standing annual census were actually registered, the rest being estimates by officials. In Sri Lanka in 1995 a four-year old Department of Wildlife Conservation registration effort listed fewer than one hundred elephants; in fact, perhaps as many as 600 domesticated elephants live on the island (with one researcher having data on most of them) and several NGOs and academics have conducted studies involving well over 100 elephants. Such private efforts are quite remarkable because most mahouts and owners were quite happy to cooperate. Similar efforts by NGOs and researchers in south India and Thailand have also shown that even owners wary of official registration usually trust well-intended academics and private citizens. This universal pattern of evading civil servants while welcoming private researchers suggests two approaches which could greatly facilitate registration efforts.

First, it is important for civil servants to provide more courteous service or to involve NGOs, which are normally highly respectful of their subjects. In 1996 the process of registering an elephant should be more the state satisfying its obligation to an elephant owner rather than, as in the past, an owner satisfying his obligation to the state. Lair (1986) wrote that there should be no registration fees, that officials should travel to owners rather than owners to officials, and that bureaucratic hassles should be eliminated; he wrote, “Licensing [registration] should be, for owner and elephant alike, enrolment into a ‘national treasure’.” Dassman (1984) has written, “For nature conservation to be effective, a general commitment - enforced by laws and regulations must be in effect everywhere and must have popular support.” No conservation effort requires popular support more than does the registration of domesticated elephants.

Second, widespread avoidance of registration indicates the need to provide a range of benefits or positive inducements designed to entice private owners into voluntarily registering their elephants. “Elephant owners who are fulfilling their proprietary obligations [by registering] should be recognized as doing a public service and thus deserving of support. Owners would appreciate free or subsidized annual veterinary inspection and emergency care, educational materials, elephant transportation facilities, etc.,” wrote Lair (1986). The central inducement should be basic veterinary care, primarily a yearly inspection including vaccines against common preventable diseases (haemorrhagic septicaemia, anthrax, tetanus, etc.) but also including the provision of vermifuges, infant formula, and other basic needs. (See “Veterinary care and health,” page 247.) Other supplementary inducements to register could include educational materials such as simple but comprehensive health care manuals, one for veterinarians and one written very specifically for barely educated mahouts. More ambitious possible inducements include technical help with breeding, subsidized or financed breeding, free training of mahouts, etc. One particularly effective but inexpensive effort would be to offer free or subsidized insurance (for elephants, for mahouts, third-party damage, etc.).

Free veterinary care and other inducements would make unofficial registration irresistible, and free care might perhaps make even mandatory official registration tolerable, so long as politely conducted.

Marking for individual identification

A purely technical need is to determine the best possible technique to mark domesticated elephants with a unique number so as to make individuals instantly identifiable. (All existing techniques should be researched; if all are found to be inadequate, a new technique should be invented.) Lair (1986) wrote, “It will be impossible to enforce laws and work regulations and to prevent fraudulent registration until any official, police officer or scientist can unerringly identify individual licensed elephants.... Developing a safe and simple method for marking individual elephants should be a high priority.” Only with numbered elephants is it possible to at a national level practice veterinary medicine, conduct scientific studies, regulate work, etc. Only with numbered animals is it possible to discourage illegal possession of wild elephants, thus stifling illegal capture and international trade in wild elephants.

The Moghul Emperor Akbar required that his elephants and those of his nobles be branded with a hot iron, a technique which today is both unacceptable and impractical. The branding iron was supplanted in colonial times by chemical branding, and to this day the nearly 3,000 elephants belonging to the Myanma Timber Enterprise are still numbered with caustic paste. But chemical branding, described by Evans (1910) and Ferrier (1947), is not only painful but also large and ugly, slow to apply, partially effaceable or removable, and requires periodic touch-up. Describing an instance of chemical branding, Marshall (1959) says, “The pain must have been considerable but since a good brand would be their greatest safeguard against theft and ill-treatment in years to come, they were made to last out the full twenty minutes.”

Chemical branding is barely acceptable even with government-owned elephants, where branding can be ordered by managers and where the pain and the considerable time can be tolerated. Chemical branding is totally unworkable when seeking voluntary registration (or even the least unpleasant forced registration), such as a small team trying to register many privately-owned elephants at a religious procession. A quicker and less painful technique is badly needed so as to be acceptable to private owners.

Various modern marking techniques should be explored, including freeze-branding (cyrobranding) which is quick to apply and has proven most durable with water buffalo, although it is evidently untested on elephants; apart from probable difficulties with elephant skin, the major problem with freeze-branding is that it requires considerable skill in application. Lip tattoos - beyond requiring considerable time and skill - are not practical with dangerous elephants in the field, where there is only primitive restraint gear. Lair (1993 [written in 1988, before practical microchips]) suggested the possibility of ear tags.

Microchips are an obvious answer, but unfortunately they are not very useful in field conditions in Asia simply because the expensive reading devices are rarely available to veterinarians, local officials, and law enforcement officers. Further, even elephants with implanted microchips still need an external mark to indicate not just the chip’s presence but also its location. (Of two NGOs in Thailand, one implants its chips in the backs of ears while the other, which frequently works with dangerous elephants, uses shoulders.)

A number clearly visible to the naked eye is far preferable to a microchip in Asia. The ideal marking technique would be quick, simple, cheap, painless, unremoveable, ineffaceable, small but easy to read, and require no particular skill to apply. These properties in combination are quite demanding but hopefully possible. Western zoos and veterinarians could contribute much to the search for the ideal marking technique, even though they have little to gain since they have no compelling need to mark their easily identifiable elephants.

Finding the best of all possible external marking devices is an absolute prerequisite to water-tight registration, and registration is an absolute prerequisite to further management of any kind.

Institutions involved

Two highly experienced observers (de Alwis and Santiapillai, 1992) say, “If such concerned conservation organizations as WWF and IUCN are ineffective or impotent in raising sufficient funds to conserve the [wild] Asian elephant, we shudder to think what hope is there for other less charismatic animals in the wild.” Surely amongst those “less charismatic animals” are those wild Asian elephants with the misfortune to have fallen or been born into human hands, for very few organizations or institutions are at all concerned with domesticated elephants. The biggest institutional obstacle to the modern management of domesticated elephants is the institutions ‘not involved’.

The primary possible players at a national level are livestock agencies, wildlife agencies, and forest departments, with NGOs playing support roles. (The national wildlife agency in most Asian countries falls under the forest department; at very least, it will be in the same ministry.) NGOs are a coming force in the more developed Asian countries but the job needing to be done is too big for NGOs on their own. NGOs everywhere need and deserve support for the important field work they do locally and the education and lobbying that they do nationally.

Livestock departments and domesticated elephants

The livestock or animal husbandry department in every Asian country, remarked Lair (1986), “is likely the only existing institution large enough to deal with a national veterinary program.” With large numbers of veterinarians, laboratories, highway inspection stations, etc., logic would suggest that livestock departments should play a key role in the management and conservation of domesticated elephants. Surprisingly, livestock departments across Asia have little or no part in managing domesticated elephants, largely as a result of how they originated.

All livestock departments, in a pattern constant throughout the region, were established before World War II, a time when domesticated elephants still abounded and needed no protection. Livestock departments were founded to foster meat animals and draft animals, the aim being to improve health and productivity. But elephants were raised neither for their meat nor their skin, and while elephants were important as draft animals, most government draft elephants worked in forestry, which is another jurisdiction. Transport animals were far beyond the scope of livestock departments. Presently, livestock departments usually see their job as working only with animals of significant economic value. Not fitting that criterion, domesticated elephants are mostly seen by livestock departments in Asia as the responsibility of forest departments, their historical employers and guardians, or the responsibility of wildlife agencies, their new caretaker in those countries where national wildlife law reflects CITES.

In at time of crisis, the massive resources of livestock departments need to be fully and formally engaged, a mobilization easy enough so long as their role is mandated by new legislation and so long as sufficient funding and training are provided. Large-animal veterinarians in livestock departments should be extensively trained in the many peculiarities of treating elephants. Rather than quietly taking on another job, livestock departments should establish a separate elephant division with its own funding and personnel. In order to establish esprit de corps, the elephant division should be made highly visible through the media - elephant stories, sad or happy, always make good news - so that it receives great praise or criticism depending on its performance.

Wildlife institutions and domesticated elephants

Any institution, program, or enterprise which is charged with the research, management, and conservation of both wild and domesticated elephants, whether nationally or internationally, will invariably neglect domesticated elephants. Neglect - inaction is the more accurate word - is true whether speaking broadly about national wildlife departments and NGOs or international institutions, whether the RFD in Thailand or the DWLC in Sri Lanka, whether the IUCN/SSC AESG or the Wildlife Fund of Thailand, or virtually any other entity that could be named. (The Smithsonian alone has since the 1960s devoted roughly equal attention to both subpopulations.)

All wildlife institutions, as they will readily admit, have too little money and too few experts to fulfil even their own primary mandate, the conservation of wild elephants. The cost of conserving domesticated elephants will everywhere certainly be as high as the conservation of wild elephants and could possibly dwarf it terms of money and manpower, if only because so many needy domesticated elephants are eminently reachable as individuals. How are wild elephant conservation institutions to achieve care for elephants in domesticity? Are they to retrain half of their staff to specialize in domesticated elephants? Are they to devote half of their budgets to domesticated elephants? Clearly this should not happen and, as the last twenty years have shown, will not happen.

Wildlife biologists have always been the most astute observers of domesticated elephant management. Wildlife institutions alone can provide much irreplaceable knowledge (e.g., genetics, ethology, age and population structures of wild elephants, etc.) needed in planning the ideal management of domesticated elephants, but wildlife institutions will never deliver hands-on care to many thousands of elephants. Beyond the lack of money, manpower, and expertise, wildlife institutions also face psychological and social barriers when confronted with domesticated elephants. Keeping elephants in domesticity poses many painful and perplexing questions about suitable work, breeding, control techniques, selling or gifting elephants overseas, etc., that can easily turn contentious enough to cause divisions and anger amongst any wildlife institution’s employees and constituents.

Clearly, any successful efforts to provide physical care to Asian elephants in domesticity will be beyond the scope of wildlife organizations. There is a great need in Asia for a stand-alone organization devoted solely to the domesticated elephant.

International umbrella organization

A multi-disciplinary international organization is needed in order to support Asian livestock departments, wildlife agencies, and NGOs. Two prime goals should be to foster the sharing of knowledge within the region and to solicit and channel support from the West. This umbrella organization could also attempt to define problems and then devise solutions both practical in the field and able to transcend national and institutional boundaries.

· See “Think Tank,” page 259.

Veterinary care and health

Veterinary care for elephants in Asia is in a very poor state. Of 12,000 privately-owned elephants clearly only a very few receive even minimally acceptable veterinary care. Lair (1986) wrote of privately-owned elephants that “a near total lack of modern veterinary care is widespread.” All of the large Asian countries do have a few masterful elephant veterinarians, but below the masters there are very few veterinarians with adequate experience with elephants. Thus, while nearly all Asian countries do train and do have many competent veterinarians, there is, and always has been, a chronic lack of elephant veterinarians.

Writing of veterinary medicine for elephants, Mikota et al. (1994) wrote, “Diagnosis and treatment are complicated by enormous size and unique physiology. Captive animals may succumb both to disorders unique to elephants and conditions which are more readily resolved in other species.” Schmidt (1978) writes that, “Due to their unique anatomy and physiology, elephants also have a small but distinguished variety of unique medical problems, solutions for which cannot be found anywhere in standard veterinary texts.” Schmidt is understating the elephant’s “unique medical problems,” problems which in any case pose far more difficulties in Asia, oddly enough, than they do in the West. In the West even a veterinarian who has never before treated an elephant will have considerable exotic animal experience, modern medicines and equipment, access to libraries, and perhaps even be able to hold a video-telephone conference with colleagues while conducting a procedure.

In Asia, matters are far more problematical. Elephants are not covered in the standard veterinary texts, dosages are not given in handbooks, the instruments used with cattle and buffalo are usually too small, and the elephant possesses a bewildering array of anatomical peculiarities. Physically, elephants are big, frightening, and frequently quite dangerous, especially in bush conditions with no hydraulic doors or crushes; consequently, the field veterinarian in Asia had best be bold, athletic, and robust. All of these discouraging factors have combined to minimize the pool of available veterinarians. (Another discouraging factor is that many poor owners have neither the money nor the awareness of modern medicine to seek out and support elephant veterinarians.)

Even in those countries lucky enough to have a few first-rate elephant veterinarians, a further problem is that those few are invariably civil servants working solely with government-owned elephants. (Except for Sri Lanka, perhaps, it would seem that there are almost no good elephant veterinarians in private practice; Thailand, for example, has but very few.) Nowhere is the gap in care between privately-owned and government-owned elephants greater than with veterinary care.

“The average water buffalo or ox gets better veterinary care than an elephant,” wrote Lair (1986). In most Asian countries livestock departments will provide water buffalo and cattle with basic care, if only inoculations against contagious diseases; but privately-owned elephants get no attention from livestock departments except for a few small, informal attempts at outreach, notably in Lao PDR and Myanmar. In Thailand some Livestock Department veterinarians will semi-officially care for elephants, but seemingly as a matter of personal choice. Some Thai elephants have begun to receive care thorough the auspices of two NGOs with veterinarians volunteering their time.

“Animal Husbandry Departments have the latent ability and the facilities - the sheer size - to run such [veterinary] programs but have no history of, or expertise in, systematically caring for elephants,” wrote Lair (1986). The minimal involvement of livestock department veterinarians with domesticated elephants is mostly because law has not given them jurisdiction. (See “Legal status,” page 240, and “Institutions involved,” page 245.) All over Asia, some of the large-animal veterinarians of livestock departments could easily be trained to become competent entry-level elephant veterinarians, enabling livestock departments to launch outreach programs treating privately-owned elephants. Forest department veterinarians should help train veterinarians in the livestock department. Upgrading large-animal veterinarians could be easily achieved by conventional means: seminars, training programs in the field, scholarships, publications, hosting visiting experts, etc.

Lair (1986) noted that the veterinary methodology might be planned and described internationally and then adapted to national conditions; he specifically suggests special training for veterinarians, shared forms, publications, and the development of techniques suited to field conditions. Referring to privately-owned elephants, he added, “International institutions could play an irreplaceable role in all national [veterinary] efforts, first in an initiatory role, since no Asian country is likely to start a veterinary program on its own...” Ten years later there is still not a single adequate, comprehensive nation-wide veterinary care program anywhere in Asia.

After establishing basic preventative care (a yearly inspection and prophylaxis), the ultimate goal must be to provide full-time veterinary care for any illness or injury including emergencies. Lair (1986) recommends “fully-equipped mobile veterinary teams to make annual visits to each animal.” Assuming that the approximately 4,000 government-owned elephants in Asia already receive adequate care, then about 12,000 privately-owned elephants need care; assuming that every 100 elephants require one veterinarian, then to extend full-time care to all of Asia’s privately-owned elephants would require about 120 veterinarians. (Actual personnel might include, for example, 40 veterinarians and 80 veterinary technicians.) Full veterinary care would thus be a large but not overwhelming task.

Basic veterinary care is a key inducement in encouraging voluntary registration and registration is a prerequisite to universal veterinary care. Registration and veterinary care should be thought of as an interlocking process.

Care manuals

Educating mahouts and owners about modern concepts of disease and treatment is essential. Writing of Karen keepers in northern Thailand, Kundstadter (1978) said, “The farmers are concerned about the ritual well-being of their animals ... but aside from quarantine and isolation they have little practical knowledge of protection of the animal’s health.” Lair (1986) wrote that “a program of owner education coupled with rudimentary prophylaxis and treatment could do much to improve conditions.” Badly needed is a succinct but comprehensive health care manual for mahouts and owners written to suit field conditions and to be easily understood by poorly educated readers. Distributed free to all mahouts and owners, particularly at registration, an elementary health care manual could prevent much unnecessary suffering and save lives at a very low cost per head. One simple and indisputable life-saver would be to devise recipes for preparing sterile and easily digestible infant formulas from cheap local ingredients, and also to list and describe the relative safety of local brands of powdered milk or milk-substitute. (Many calves die after being fed human formula powdered milk which they cannot digest, and in each country tolerance varies widely between brands.)

Since most owners and mahouts understand very little about diseases in a modern sense, the manual should provide very clear descriptions of the symptoms and nature of common diseases and should stress the need for vaccinations. Treatment of diseases and conditions possible without a veterinarian would be the core of the book: simple eye infections, cleansing wounds, identifying worms and giving vermifuges, etc. (Obviously, the panel of veterinarian writers would have to think long and hard to ensure against recommending dangerous procedures.) The manual should list and explain the use of veterinary medicines safe to use without veterinary supervision, easily available human medicines safe to use with elephants, etc. Basic foot care using Western-developed methods is a likely subject; in Asia most elephants naturally have feet and nails beautifully manicured by natural wear and tear, and consequently when problems arise even master mahouts know little about treating bad pads and nails.

Since 100% of the care manual’s form and about 70-80% of its content will be the same in all countries, it makes great sense to produce a model manual through an international effort. Written in English by an international panel of veterinarians, the mahout’s care manual should be translated into national languages and then, by experts in that country, be adapted and expanded to suit national conditions, e.g., give local herbal medicine formulas, give in-country brand names for medicines, suggest methods to reduce tooth damage from mouth-skidding in Sri Lanka, list phone numbers for NGOs and veterinarians, etc.

A similar elementary book could be written to help upgrade large-animal veterinarians to be able to treat elephants in field conditions. Mikota et al. (1994) wrote a book geared to elephants in zoos which could provide technical guidance.


Throughout history in Asia, speculates Sukumar (1992), the number of elephants captured in the wild exceeds two million and is possibly closer to four million. Assuming only two million captives over all of time and assuming a present population of 16,000 domesticated Asian elephants (most of them wild-caught), then all of the domesticated elephants alive today number at most about 0.8% of all the elephants ever captured. Each domesticated elephant alive today has been preceded by over one hundred wild-caught elephants. How many wild-caught elephants will the future bring?

The future bodes ill in terms of garnering new recruits from the wild, and the only certainty is that domesticated elephants alive today will not each be followed by a hundred wild captives. Capture, at least at any large scale, is at an end after being banned in the main elephant-keeping countries. Breeding, even in those countries where it is a cultural norm, is passively discouraged by scarce work and low profits. Birth rates are low everywhere and many national populations are becoming moribund (not unlike the slowly wasting European zoo population) with the breeding females growing ever fewer and ever older. Many cows are so overworked or so undernourished or both, that their reproductive systems are not functioning properly. Cultural inhibitions against breeding are daunting.

Such a gloomy picture of future recruitment is easily painted, and all of the above inhibiting factors are operative. However, with clever and energetic management none of these problems would seem to be insuperable, and it is possible to paint a much rosier future.

Despite clear challenges, an improved supply of young elephants is possible by finally initiating more systematic and intensive management. Capture of wild elephants for wildlife management purposes is likely to increase wherever human-elephant conflict increases. Birth rates can be improved by breeding programs utilizing techniques such as subsidized breeding, free stud service, helping owners to track estrus, supporting cows through gestation and lactation, etc. Overwork, a prime inhibitor of breeding, can be greatly reduced through legal and management measures. Market forces, after breeding is shown to be profitable, might stimulate many births in countries wherever there is a demand for calves. (Breeding calves to sell would probably be profitable today in some countries, for example, Thailand and Sri Lanka, so long as calves could be financed.) Cultural inhibitions against breeding, such as in south India and Sri Lanka, can be overcome by demonstrating that breeding is safe and easy.

Both scenarios, the gloomy and the rosy, are possible. Actual outcomes will vary by country and region, depending on the human and financial resources expended on recruitment.

These two conflicting portrayals of future supply raise the question of future demand, and demand raises questions not just of numbers but also of motives. As the 21st century fast approaches, the deeper question is not how many elephants we want, but rather why do we want them? What purposes will domesticated elephants serve in the year 2017? That year seems far in the future until you consider that all calves bred in 1997 will gestate for nearly two years and finally come on stream as mature breeders and workers at the age of eighteen in 2017.

The scientific community might wish for a large and stable self-sustaining population, but ultimately it is today’s beleaguered private elephant owners who are haphazardly deciding the demographics of 2017. Unfortunately, the elephant’s long growth to maturity makes planning impossible for owners in a volatile market economy; no private owner today breeds and raises calves with the intent to sell them or work them as young adults in 2017. The elephant’s eighteen year growth to working age means there is no linkage between demand and supply, and market forces cannot stimulate the production of new workers.

How many jobs will be available to the newly-matured adults of 2017? Future employment is crucial because unless governments should choose to either subsidize or totally expropriate domesticated elephants, neither of which is likely, the care of domesticated elephants will remain relegated mainly to private owners, many of them rural poor who will cease to keep elephants as paying work disappears.

· See “Employment (II),” page 252.

Similarly, in 2017 will there be enough competent mahouts to provide humane care for the elephants being born today, especially the bulls?

· See “Mahoutship (II),” page 254.

Captive birth rates can easily be improved (wherever the will exists) through a whole barrage of straightforward scientific and managerial techniques: helping owners track estrus, financing calves, reducing work, improving nutrition, free stud service, etc. Developing such techniques is easy, but deciding where and how to employ them is not so simple. Elephants normally breed quite well and improved management in breeding could possibly produce more calves than local markets could absorb. It would be irresponsible to breed profitable calves for which as adults there would not be enough jobs, food, or keepers. This conundrum richly illustrates the need to use all the tools of science to explore possible futures.

Because recent official capture efforts in some countries have often entailed high mortality rates, there is a need to improve the methods used to capture and train wild elephants. Too many ostensibly humane attempts to save ‘doomed’ wild elephants through capture have resulted in slow and painful deaths in rough breaking. Improved dissemination of information about drug immobilization and more modern training techniques would help, as would the increased use of khoonkies.

The introduction, reintroduction, or improvement of the use of khoonkies in the capture, moving, and training of wild elephants holds great promise. Two countries presently employing khoonkies, Malaysia and Indonesia, use pairs introduced from countries where the khoonkie is in decline, Malaysia’s elephants coming from India and Indonesia’s from Thailand. Both Indonesia and Malaysia are actively searching for more khoonkies, Indonesia wanting six teams of two elephants. Good khoonkies, a staple of traditional elephant-capturing cultures, have nearly vanished. Special programs could be devised to train khoonkies, encouraging needy countries to maintain full-time teams, and to truck khoonkies so as to increase their range and effectiveness. Khoonkies are invaluable not only in safely capturing and training wild elephants but also in helping to subdue and move escaped domesticated elephants.

“It will be appreciated that mela shikar calls for a very high degree of skill and courage, and there are few successful operatives,” wrote Ferrier (1947). But mela-shikar has become infinitely easier and safer for both mahouts and khoonkies since the noose has been largely replaced with drug immobilization. The dart gun is usually fired by a man on foot, not mounted, and thus the khoonkies are not required at all until the sedated captive is hobbled or chained to a tree.


Prices are a function of supply and demand, and demand is a function of the amount and profitability of work. Today traditional work is in decline everywhere except Myanmar, and the only work realms with even a slowly growing need for elephants are tourism, entertainment, and cultural affairs. The question is how shifting work patterns are influencing prices.

Conway (1980) wrote, “Unfortunately, ... the preservation of animals that man finds attractive cannot be sustained on any provable economic basis.... Whereas rarity commonly confers value on many objects of human interest, the decline in utility of an animal, along with increasing rarity and ecological change, may reduce its worth.” Increasing rarity, a troubled ecosystem, and a “decline in utility” are all generally true of domesticated elephants in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India. (Prices for elephants in south India and Sri Lanka would seem to be 50-100% higher than in Myanmar, at least partly because of rarity.)

Simultaneous rarity and a decline in utility in the more Asian developed countries will invariably skew prices between classes of elephants rather than bring an across the board changes. Rarity will cause some prices to rise, and lack of demand will cause others to fall. Work in entertainment and cultural affairs, an ancient but increasingly larger share of the labor market, will cause prices to rise for the animals it prefers: cute calves, magnificent but even-tempered tuskers, totally placid cows, etc. Prices for elephants good at traditional work will fall in parallel with declining work because they have no entertainment value: temperamental cows, tuskless bulls, etc. Higher prices coupled with scant profitable traditional work often compels mahout-owners to sell some elephants to rich non-mahout owners, whether showmen or prestige seekers, often with disastrous consequences for the animals. Registration alone can gather significant data on prices in relation to sex, age, tuskedness, work skills, and possibly even temperament.

The market

“Elephants are bought and sold like other cattle, that is, the purchaser pays for the animal and takes it away.” So wrote Evans of Burma in 1910, and amazingly it still holds true not just for Myanmar but for every elephant-keeping country in Asia in 1996. Legally, so long as the animals remain in the land of their birth, anybody with the money could buy any or all of the privately-owned domesticated elephants in Asia, conceivably even cornering the market on an endangered species and the remnants of a tradition 4,000 years old.

Assuming an average price of US$8,000 per elephant (and also assuming, for the sake of argument, that all government-owned elephants could be bought), then Asia’s 16,000 domesticated elephants would cost about US$128,000,000. The richest man in the world, Bill Gates (US$18 billion in 1996 according to Forbes magazine), could buy all of Asia’s domesticated elephants 140 times over. A single month of the fast-food giant McDonald’s Corporation’s US$1.4 billion profits in 1995 would easily have bought every domesticated elephant in Asia.

Such comparisons somewhat superciliously suggest the shifted priorities of Homo sapiens in Asia in 1996 but rather more pointedly illustrate the collapse in value of what was until fifty or a hundred years ago not only a prime symbol and object of wealth but also, through its unrivalled work skills, a prime creator of wealth.

The collective purchase price of US$128,000,000 for all of Asia’s domesticated elephants is barely enough to buy a rather commonplace Boeing B777 (US$118 million). This seemingly incongruous comparison between elephants and airplanes is far more apt than first appears because even fifty years ago elephants were still a uniquely valuable transport commodity bought and sold in an open market exactly as airplanes are today. (Just as airplanes today deliver people and goods with a speed unparalleled by other means, elephants not so long ago delivered people and heavy objects over difficult terrain impossible by any other means.) Someday airplanes will be put out of a job just as surely as machines have mostly displaced elephants, but airplanes can be parked or scrapped whereas elephants must be tended even past their usefulness.

Employment (II)

A shortage of employment is already a daunting problem in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and much of India; and the problem is likely to get steadily worse. Even if Thailand were able to maintain its numbers at 3,500 elephants for twenty years into the future, it is hard to imagine there being enough gainful work for them, especially bulls. Other than rich prestige seekers and hobbyists, no owners will continue to keep elephants once they cease to bring a profit. Certainly the mahout-owners, who are nearly all rural poor, will not keep elephants once income dips below survival level.

Both logging and transport, the two major employers in recent history, require relatively intact forest as a work venue. Lair (1986) wrote, “When forests vanish, most elephant work vanishes as well.” The loss of jobs in transport and logging is so huge that no conceivable future work type could ever employ such high numbers, short of governments expropriating elephants and creating some busy-work or simply putting them out to pasture.

The loss of work for elephants would not be a problem if the unemployed animals would exit gracefully, if they were led home to quiet retirement in an idyllic village or perhaps even set free in the wild. (There would also be no management problem if they would die off after a few years, but the elephant is the longest living mammal after man.) Unfortunately, the precipitous decline in jobs brings to elephants not a life of ease but a life of awesome new threats. Too little work creates fierce competition for what work there is, and the resultant low pay leads directly to abuse of elephants through overwork. Insufficient work also forces many owners to accept unsuitable or dangerous jobs: calves greeting guests at hotels, wandering city streets, skidding in illegal logging, etc. Some owners in northern Thailand have even begun to sell unemployable elephants to be slaughtered for meat, an act considered morally abhorrent only five years ago.

Many crucial aspects about current employment, particularly important in Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka, will be answered only after improved registration efforts have gathered needed information.

Contemplating future employment, four main kinds of work seem likely: selective logging, social forestry, commercial tourism-entertainment, and education and culture.

Selective logging has been repeatedly suggested by conservationists as a work type which could employ more elephants, but that potential is ultimately determined by the amount of remaining forest, by the laws governing logging, and by market forces - not by wishful thinking. Even as forests have been rapidly ravaged in many elephant-keeping countries, nowhere has there been a systematic increase of legal selective logging by elephants, despite the ecological rewards it clearly brings.

Social forestry sounds like a very appropriate job arena, and Lair (1986) wrote lengthily and somewhat naïvely about that possibility. A decade of subsequent field experience suggests, however, that wherever it is possible to use elephants in village- or plantation-level social forestry, it is already being done successfully in traditional ways. Some expansion might be possible but only at the great financial cost of trucking elephants to distant work sites or the great social cost of sending solitaries or very small groups of elephants to work in isolation. The more attainable goal is not plantation forestry, the author would suggest, but rather multipurpose work at village level: erecting house posts, dragging stones, making roads or trails, serving as wet season transportation, etc. The Asian elephant has long been and possibly still could be invaluable in construction and general village work. Construction sounds a strange job for elephants but becomes clear upon seeing them building a bridge or lifting a roof beam. (Or erecting a circus tent in the West.) Elephants undoubtedly dragged dressed stones to the masons at Angkor Wat and some probably even aligned stones largely on their own, just as some elephants today can stack logs with no orders. Being able to not only drag with their whole bodies, like water buffalo or oxen, but also able to intelligently use their trunks, foreheads, and feet, elephants are the only general utility domestic draft animal, the animal equivalent of a Swiss army knife.

Commercial entertainment, including tourism and festivals, is the only work type which is actually growing, but unfortunately entertainment nearly always brings a host of characteristic problems: a preference for young calves, lack of cooperation among mahouts, totally inexperienced mahouts, traditional owners selling elephants to showmen, etc. (See “Problems brought by performance,” page 205, for Thailand.) While work in tourism-entertainment does help to keep some elephants alive, it almost invariably does so at the expense of corroding traditional elephant-keeping technique and culture. Trekking tours in nature are the only form of tourism work which actually supports traditional culture (or at least does more good than harm) and provides elephants with a healthy life.

Non-profit education and cultural affairs is not so much a separate work type but a kinder, hypothetical extension of commercial tourism-entertainment run not by businessmen but by governments and NGOs. Non-profit education would include eco-tourism, such as giving rides in national parks, and doing shows or demonstrations for schools and institutions. Humane work in education and culture is highly desirable, fulfilling two goals at once, but regrettably costs are so high that even most non-profit institutions need to be run like a business just to make expenses. Even most religious sites, festivals, and parades must generate considerable money.


Development inevitably disrupts ownership patterns by destroying traditional types of work. Lair (1986) wrote, “In Thailand there are increasingly fewer tribal owners and increasingly fewer mahout-owners, men who own the elephant they ride.” In Thailand, Sri Lanka, and probably parts of India many traditional owners have sold their elephants, often to nouveau riche acquiring prestige or perhaps starting a business in tourism.

Registration designed to collect information on owners and mahouts would elucidate critical factors such as family ownership, multi-party ownership, cultural and economic background, etc. Registering or licensing privately-owned elephants implies that owners will similarly need to be registered and individually identifiable.

The most profound question of ownership is the extent to which Asian elephants in domesticity belong to the larger community. Lair (1986) wrote, “Governments should realize that domesticated elephants are not simply the private property of a few people but rather a shared national resource and a shared national heritage.” One school of conservationists would add “a shared world heritage” as well, but ownership normally implies obligations as well as rights, and if the global conservation community wishes to share a sense of ownership of domesticated elephants then it should contribute to their upkeep and their well-being.

Mahoutship (II)

It would be fitting if 4,000 year old traditions took a few leisurely centuries dying out, but unfortunately many elephant-keeping cultures have degenerated and vanished during the course of one or two generations. (Traditions actually die out overnight whenever a boy decides not to follow his father’s footsteps.) Poor mahoutship is already a severe problem in the three more developed countries - Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka - and in no more than twenty years, perhaps even just ten, it will be very difficult to find competent riders, men who truly deserve the title ‘mahout’.

Far from ivory tower theorizing, the sorry state of mahoutship, however poorly documented, is easily witnessed on the ground: the inadequacy of the latest generation of Kui mahouts in Thailand, the demoralisation and loss of skills in Sri Lanka, etc. Foresters, veterinarians, and older mahouts interviewed in the more developed countries all convincingly complained of a disastrous fall of standards during their own working lives. Even young mahouts will volunteer, with the ring of absolute truth, “I know very little, my grandfather is the one who knows.” The context makes it clear that the grandfather’s knowledge will never be transmitted to the grandson.

Poor mahoutship is the most frightening problem facing domesticated elephants simply because there are no obvious solutions. Even with unlimited funds, it would be hard to see where to start. Training or, even more difficult, re-training a mahout is much slower and harder than giving an elephant an annual veterinary inspection. Attempts to better mahouts’ lives by improving their pay and their children’s schooling are likely to ensure that their sons get enough education to avoid becoming a mahout. Most hired mahouts and many mahout-owners are plagued by feelings of inferiority and dream of driving a ten-wheel truck instead of an elephant, seeing the machine as easier, safer, cleaner, better paying, higher in social status, and modern. The mahouts are, of course, correct on all counts, which makes it difficult to recruit their sons to become mahouts.

Tribal mahoutship

Tribal traditions often crumble quite rapidly when hit by development. Of the Karen, Kundstadter et al. (1978) says that, “Training elephants to work ... is a highly complex, carefully protected skill surrounded by a great deal of ritual.” Highly complex skills “surrounded by a great deal of ritual” might be very enduring in a pristine setting but are often quite fragile when confronted by deforestation-caused loss of work and a barrage of tradition-destroying social forces: education by central government, loss of language, a cash economy, television, roads, etc. Registration which collected socio-economic data on tribal mahouts and owners would clarify their numbers, work conditions, and attitudes towards keeping elephants.

In rapidly developing Thailand, for example, several tribes have quit keeping elephants and in those tribes which still keep them, such as the Kui, the only mahouts who have participated in absolutely traditional keeping and capturing are over fifty years old. (See “Kui,” page 214.) The latest generation of mahouts has been more or less totally corrupted. The Kui teenagers now entering the work arena are the first generation of mahouts to be reared on television soap operas and kung fu movies rather than folk tales and elephant stories told by elders. The result is a group of brave and athletic young men with only a rudimentary understanding of control technique. The new generation is rarely taught the traditional mahout’s full technical repertoire: perfect control, training skills, the ability to assess elephant behavior and body condition, making restraint gear and harness, intimate knowledge of food plants, etc. Even more, the youngest mahouts lack the cultural and spiritual glue which anneals the technical repertoire: ritual, hierarchical ranks, the forest spirit language, etc.

The decline of the Kui is mirrored in other tribal cultures in various stages of decay all over developing South and Southeast Asia. Deforestation brings both a decrease and a dispersal in work, forcing mahouts to seek work far from home; many tribals simply cannot adapt outside of their native environment, while others adapt all too well.

All surviving tribal traditions should be exhaustively studied and documented both for their intrinsic interest and because some individual control techniques and hardware might prove useful in a modern composite technique. It is essential to nurture the surviving robust Asian traditions (the Karen and Shan in Myanmar, numerous groups in Cambodia, etc.) and to study and revitalize the deteriorating traditions (the Kui in Thailand, caste mahouts in Sri Lanka, etc.). Tribal traditions do not, however, serve well as appropriate, cohesive methodologies for teaching outsiders how to control elephants; tribal technique is usually not so much systematically taught as it is absorbed through a series of ranks from boyhood to death.

Loss of individual skills

Mahoutship is in a state of quiet crisis in all of the more developed countries. The near future is sure to bring poorer standards amongst individual mahouts as observable through two prime indicators: a declining ability to control bulls and a declining ability to train elephants.

A diminished ability to control bulls is highly visible because bulls often kill mahouts and then often get killed themselves. (A spate of bulls shot dead by police in Thailand recently was well covered by newspapers and television.) Higher numbers of inadequately trained mahouts will inevitably bring higher rates of both human and elephant deaths.

A decline in the ability to train will be catastrophic. Presently, most young mahouts simply cannot train and, worse, rarely show any interest in training, an art which takes years to learn. In one of the few published observations about contemporary training, Lehnhardt (1995) remarks of Sri Lanka that, “Training elephants seems to be a lost art. None of the mahouts we interviewed had actually trained their animals, they had inherited them already trained.” In northeastern Thailand today there are elephants which have not been taught to lay on one side, a standard posture in the past, simply because the training techniques have been lost. In traditional societies the training of elephants was invariably seen as highly interesting and even fun, often drawing spectators with nothing better to do. Today’s young mahouts usually see training as boring and taking time away from relaxing or making money.

Many mahouts in the more developed countries presently function fairly well because they are still supervised, though not fully taught, by their father’s generation. The next generation, the children of today’s young mahouts, will inevitably suffer such a complete deterioration of universal standards as to bring massive, horrifying problems.

Loss of uniform standards

Beyond declining standards at the individual level, there is another subtle problem corroding mahoutship: vanishing uniform standards. In the past, tribal and aristocratic traditions mandated rules or norms which were shared across large swathes of territory; there were uniform command words, hook points, training techniques, etc. Uniformity makes life much easier wherever elephants change hands often. Uniform standards today are collapsing as few young mahouts get taught whole systems but are rather taught just enough to get by.

A decline in uniform handling does not mean that work proceeds as normal except just a bit slower; lack of uniformity usually leads to a vicious circle. When elephants get confused by a command word or hook point different than they were taught, poorly taught mahouts will often try to knock some sense into them, a counterproductive act which makes the elephants more nervous and more confused. High-strung animals ultimately become either ‘aggresive’ or simply useless. The cycle of confusion and violence is compounded when elephants are ridden by a succession of mahouts, an increasingly common problem as young men with no prior experience become mahouts only to quit after a few months or years. Competition for work, especially in tourism and entertainment, corrodes uniform standards as old allies withhold knowledge that was once shared by all. Vast bodies of traditional knowledge simply sublimate over a decade or two.

In the conservation of wild elephants a prime consideration is to ascertain if a contiguous group forms a minimum viable population, a number below which they cannot reproduce without genetic deterioration. A similar sort of cultural minimum viable population seems to exist for ‘mahout cultures’, a threshold or critical mass below which the quality of mahoutship irrevocably degrades. In the field some groups of mahouts now encountered seem just too small to survive as cohesive systems. With declining domesticated elephant numbers and ever fewer traditional keepers, uniform standards must inevitably decay.

Modern elephant training

Several countries in Asia are losing their ancient, steady flow of superb mahouts trained in traditional institutions and tribes. Some rapidly developing countries will soon share a managerial problem with the West, the need to individually train rank outsiders, generation after generation. Although the problem is shared, the people to be trained will be very different. In Asia most trainees will be fit young country boys, far more bold and athletic than most Western keepers but also more in need of supervision and guidance than self-motivated Western keepers. Considering the continual degradation of uniform standards and the increasingly inexperienced mahouts in the more developed Asian countries, it is time to start searching for new training and control systems best for both humans and elephants.

Modern problems perhaps require modern solutions, even in Asia. Indigenous techniques should be incorporated whenever possible but where no suitable tradition exists, the best methods should be adopted regardless of source, whether East or West. In the West there are new methods based on a potpourri of sources such as ethology, careful observation and experiment, and a long circus tradition. Several Western training systems are clearly quicker and more efficient - and ultimately kinder - than Asian techniques which have already deteriorated beyond redemption. Perhaps the only way to forestall a total collapse in mahoutship in rapidly developing Asian countries is to develop a modern, standard international system, the training equivalent of Esperanto.

Lest the emergent need for modern, outside techniques seem denigrating, it is clear that there are few surviving training traditions in Asia able to serve as appropriate models, particularly as ideal, whole systems. Palace traditions - once widespread, varied, and unsurpassably masterful - are as dead as the dodo. Tribal traditions, while to be zealously treasured and preserved, do not constitute integral systems appropriate to teach neophyte non-tribal trainees. Some forest department schools of keeping can provide valuable components but they cannot serve in totality; in any case, there are differing forest department traditions in India, Myanmar, and Thailand, and not a single one of them has been studied and documented sufficiently to serve as a model.

Modern methods will be needed to be modified for Asian conditions. While most modern Western systems concentrate with the keeper on foot, in Asia mahouts spend far more time on the neck. Specific jobs common to Asia, such as logging, religious parades, etc., will also require traditional but modified Asian methods.

Developing and introducing a shared, humane international methodology for training and controlling elephants is easier talked about than done. Perhaps the only hope for any far-reaching benefits would be a training manual and videos, each in the national language and each so well crafted as to convince owners and mahouts to use them voluntarily. Seminars or schools could be formed around such lines by government agencies or NGOs.

Cultural dimensions

In the more rapidly developing countries there has been a dangerous decline in the presence and role of both tribal and aristocratic keepers. Preserving traditional elephant-keeping cultures intact is not likely except for Myanmar, northeast India, and the much smaller number of tribal keepers in the Lao PDR, Vietnam, and Cambodia. In Thailand there is little to be done with what meager tribal tradition remains except to interview elders, a sad but fascinating and badly needed job.

One modest but essential first step is for anthropologists to comb the literature and compile annotated bibliographies of writings referring to tribes which keep elephants. (In the best of all possible worlds, a crash program would be initiated to in the field identify, study, and fully document tribal elephant-keeping cultures - but that is most unlikely.) Besides the English language, bibliographies should be compiled in French for Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and in Dutch for Indonesia. Bibliographies in Asian languages would also be useful. None of these jobs are overwhelming and none are costly. Our understanding of tribal elephant-keeping cultures across Asia is quite poor, and annotated bibliographies would greatly help researchers to explore ancient traditions that remain strictly pertinent to modern management.

Numbers rarely illuminate views of culture, but the number of elephants per human being obviously influences not just how often the average person sees an elephant but also how they perceive elephants. A hundred years ago many Asians saw elephants everyday; thus, they knew elephants as individual animals at the same time that they revered Ganesha and other elephant deities as actual gods. At present, except for television, people in all of the more developed Asian countries are lucky to see an elephant once a year.

As elephant numbers, wild and domesticated alike, have declined nearly everywhere, human numbers have climbed dramatically. For 19th century Thailand, believable numbers are available for both people and elephants. A human population of 5-6 million in 1850 is accepted by most scholars (Ingram, 1971), while McNeely and Sinha (1981) plausibly state that in 1900 Thailand had nearly 100,000 domesticated elephants. Juxtaposing these figures indicates that there was one elephant for every fifty humans. Even if there were only 50,000 elephants in Thailand in the 19th century (and in 1950 there were still at least 13,397), there was still one elephant for every one hundred people. Today there are nearly 60,000,000 Thais or 15,310 people per elephant.

· See “Past numbers,” page 167, for humans and elephants in 19th century Thailand.

Table 25: Human beings per domesticated elephant in eleven Asian countries


People1 (millions)


People per elephant

Past (Circa 1850)





Present (Circa 1995)

















Sri Lanka
































1 Past people in Thailand is Ingram (1971); present people in Asia is Anon. (1995d).

2 Past elephants is McNeely and Sinha (1981); present elephants is the ‘Likely’ column of Table 3 of this book (page 27)

The cultural attitudes of the general public in the more developed Asian countries has changed greatly. Development-related cultural deterioration of culture brought a low ebb in the customary respect which the average villager accorded to domesticated elephant, but fortunately a totally modern and cosmopolitan awareness is emerging in the more developed countries. Wherever there is a free and energetic media - as in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India - newspapers and television have educated and shaped public opinion, which in turn has greatly influenced government policy. Today the elephant’s most powerful advocate is not ancient cultural beliefs but rather a sincere, well-educated, and vocal middle-class, often led by NGOs. Such newly arisen pressure groups are, except for occasional cultural tinges, motivated by exactly the same sophisticated ecological awareness which shapes public opinion in the West.

In every country in Asia, efforts are needed to further increase public understanding about elephants through the print and electronic media. Ongoing educational efforts should be supported, and in the lesser developed countries new efforts initiated. Education of the student generation should be furthered by posters, booklets, videos, etc. Awareness amongst the conservation community should be furthered through workshops, publications, newsletters, etc.


“Elephant keeping is gravely affected by various contemporary ecological, social and economic influences.... But while elephant keeping presently suffers from many modern influences, it enjoys but few modern benefits,” wrote Lair (1986). If it is the tools of modern technology - the roads, bulldozers, and chainsaws brought by Western influence - which are decimating domesticated elephant populations in Asia by destroying their habitat and depriving them of work, then modern technology should be mobilized to at least identify and define the problems. The modern benefit most badly needed by domesticated Asian elephants today is the stock and trade of the Information Age: the ability to gather and analyze data so as to be able to understand the present and to predict and hopefully influence the future.

Anticipating and preparing for unavoidable future problems is crucial as the last 16,000 elephants of an ancient tradition dwindle away into the 21st century. The conditions of all national populations badly need some serious thought and analysis; the thinkers are surely out there, the obstacle being the lack of an instrument to bring those thinkers to a collective focus. It is time for the global wildlife and conservation intelligentsia to put on its collective thinking cap and seriously examine the troubled world of Elephas maximus in chains.

Think Tank

Much past inertia in attempting large-scale management of domesticated elephants can be explained by the fact that even once having recognized the need for care, it remains very hard to see where and how to begin. Immediately needed is what can only be called a brain trust or, better, a Think Tank: an international, multidisciplinary organization established to conceptually explore the troubled present and the murky future awaiting domesticated Asian elephants across the continent. As implied by the term ‘Think Tank’, the organization’s primary task should be to first gather and analyze information and to then generate and disseminate ideas. The goal of the Think Tank must not, despite its name, be abstruse theories but rather inventive yet still totally practical methods of reaching individual elephants, particularly the much neglected privately-owned elephants.

The Think Tank must encompass a multi-disciplinary perspective because contemporary problems with domesticated elephants very rarely fall neatly into a single scientific, academic, or administrative realm. Providing adequate veterinary care, for example, depends not only on medical resources but also on law (without mandatory registration many elephants are unreachable), sociology (educating rural keepers to the validity of modern medicine), forestry (creating jobs with incomes sufficient for owners to afford treatment), and still other fields.

The Think Tank must be both an ombudsman and catalyst, gently lobbying for action from Asian governments, NGOs, and academic institutions while also stimulating and channelling support from the West. In both Asia and the West, the Think Tank should work at expanding public awareness of the domesticated elephant’s plight by all conventional means: publications, a newsletter, networking, a web site, etc. The aim should be simply to offer tools, support, and guidance; the task of actual conservation is simply too vast and labor intensive for the Think Tank to be a principal player conducting large-scale field work. All hands-on work beyond testing model programs clearly belongs to government agencies and NGOs.

Although conducted within a strict ethos of wildlife conservation, the cooperating experts and institutions required by a Think Tank for domesticated elephants are so different from the expertise needed in wild elephant conservation as to justify a stand-alone organization dedicated solely to the subpopulation in domesticity.

Pre-packaged programs: Law, registration, and veterinary care

Inherent in the nature of a Think Tank is the strategic concept of maximizing results from minimal resources. Particularly efficient is to identify problems shared by most countries and to then devise solutions that work anywhere after only a bit of tailoring. The Think Tank must concentrate on projects which are easy to plan at an international scale and then just as easy for governments or NGOs to implement at a local level across each nation.

Three universal problems have potential solutions particularly suited to such a top-down approach: model law for domesticated Asian elephants, a registration-census-database package or ‘kit’, and a model basic veterinary program. The idea in all cases is to develop and offer a set of free tools that is so attractive as to lure governments and NGOs into shouldering the difficult and long neglected job of succoring domesticated elephants. (Helping to find funding for implementation might or might not involve the Think Tank, but that is not relevant to planning.)

Such pre-packaged programs should be the conservation equivalent of plug-in software. For law, the package might include well-compiled background information, a model draft law, the provision of legal expertise, and some very circumspect lobbying. For registration, the package might include registration forms, a database and related software for analysis, and a new method for physically affixing registration numbers to elephants. For veterinary medicine, the package might include a model regimen of care suited to Asian circumstances, a manual for mahouts and owners, a field manual for veterinarians, a syllabus for seminars, training materials, etc., and perhaps liaison with Western partners.

All Asian countries have very similar needs in law, registration, and veterinary care, and thus any model programs would have effect all out of proportion to their cost of creation.

Law would seem a most unlikely choice for a model program since law would seem to be so culturally based as to be idiosyncratic to each country. In fact, the legal needs of domesticated elephants are much the same over the region, and elephants everywhere can be managed efficiently only if they are given their own special law. By model law is meant not graven-in-stone regulations to be slavishly adopted, but rather guidelines and possible options towards realistic, enforceable regulations based on the elephant’s carefully studied physical and management needs (weaning, food, rest, cruelty, suitable employment, etc.). Model law must invariably be modified to suit each individual nation’s culture and, indeed, even its economy. The purpose of model law is not to impose a foreign system but rather to give a sense of direction and perhaps a head start to ‘elephant people’ unaccustomed to writing law. One area of required law where new perceptions from outside might prove useful is the question of assigning jurisdiction. If this book has proved anything in the realm of law, it is that being classified solely as a wild animal or solely as a domestic animal is equally disastrous to elephants in domesticity by invariably denying them one or more essential aspects of care. In no Asian country is it possible to satisfy the elephant’s needs from within a single ministry, thus necessitating unprecedented inter-ministry jurisdiction reachable only through law.

· See “Legal status,” page 240.

Registration is the mechanism which enables reaching down to elephants in the field, the ability to identify individual animals and to access accurate data on them and their keepers. At first glance it seems an impossible task to register 16,000 elephants scattered across - and often on the move through - the hinterlands of eleven Asian countries. Asian civil servants often automatically assume that comprehensive registration is impossible but their pessimism stems not so much from the intimidating costs and logistics but rather from the omnipresent official presupposition, even prejudice, that elephants will need to be rigorously searched out and their owners and mahouts will need to be coerced into cooperation. With good publicity, courteous treatment, and plentiful positive inducements, however, voluntary registration and subsequent management might well prove much easier than civil servants would ever have suspected. There are both temporal and physical ‘choke points’ where good numbers of elephants might be registered simultaneously. There are hitherto unexploited resources to be used in registration, particularly NGOs and livestock departments, and the Think Tank must devise ways to involve such newcomers. In fact, 16,000 domesticated elephants is not an astronomic number.

Registration creates an accurate running census for each region and country, and the data gathered enables computer modelling of population dynamics. Registration makes it possible to explore the future availability of domesticated elephants for use in science, conservation, and forestry, and also for use in entertainment, education, and culture.

· See “Registration,” page 241.

Free preventative veterinary care, a benefit greatly desired by keepers, could be the universally irresistible bait which entices owners to voluntarily register their elephants. Free veterinary care, primarily inoculation against diseases, means that filling out the once feared registration form becomes a barely noticed part of treating the elephant. Once registration has built a framework within which to deliver veterinary care, the actual process of gearing up to provide treatment is a straightforward professional business involving publications, training, seminars, scholarships, etc.

· See “Veterinary care and health,” page 247.

There is a synergism between providing law, registration, and veterinary care. Law is the only way to achieve full registration. Full registration is impossible without a powerful inducement such as veterinary care. Veterinary care is possible only if the elephants are registered, making them easily found and easily identifiable. These three linked agendas are the foundation of all future hands-on scientific and management efforts.

The role of the West

Asia’s domesticated elephants constitute what Lair (1986) described as a “vast, accidental and totally unmanaged indigenous ‘captive breeding program’.” Frankel and Soule (1980) wrote, “Whatever the motivation, CP [Captive Propagation] is the last gasp attempt to save a vanishing and unique expression of biological evolution, and it apparently fulfils an ethical or psychological need shared by many people.” Should Western conservationists feel “an ethical or psychological need” when faced with 16,000 specimens of Elephas maximus kept as a chaotic, largely privately-owned conservation resource maintained mostly by villagers? Should Westerners feel any obligation to the elephants’ troubled keepers?

Materially, the West should play a larger role in the care of domesticated Asian elephants in Asia simply because it possesses funds and technical resources unavailable elsewhere. In fact, the West would probably be quite happy to provide substantial help if only there were effective conduits to deliver it. But beyond supplying material help, only the West can supply the impetus for the hypothetical international Think Tank. Soon after inception any Think Tank must obviously seek out full Asian government participation or cooperation, but the brief spark before reaching critical mass can openly happen in the West. (Individual Asians are, of course, part of ‘the West’ in the metaphorical sense of ‘modern’ or ‘progressive’ and should contribute from the very start.) The immediate institutional need, it must be stressed, is not brilliant science exploring profound elephant matters but simply the establishment of a large but quite workaday communications network.

The need for an initial spark from the West proceeds from impossible conditions in government institutions on the ground in Asia; not a single government in Asia has yet had the vision to deal systematically with even its own domesticated elephants, much less with elephants beyond its borders. Some Asian experts on the domesticated elephant certainly do have the experience and broadness of vision to initiate an international effort, but unfortunately they are nearly all civil servants already overwhelmed by problems in their own countries; wildlife biologists and conservationists have their hands full with wild elephants, and veterinarians are busy treating elephants. The in-country pool of potential interdisciplinary colleagues is very small - too small to reach critical mass. Further, organizing an international effort from within many Asian countries would be difficult logistically because of poor communications, problems with foreign exchange, etc. It is most unlikely that any successful international effort would ever emerge from such discouraging conditions, no matter how talented or dedicated the people.

The lead must be picked up somewhere in the West, but it is hard to see who or where. It is quite easy to imagine many interested parties cooperating in an already functioning organization but much harder to see a nucleus of leaders able to brainstorm and then establish an efficient communications and administrative network capable of producing actual work.

The multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary demands are surely the greatest stumbling block to the creation of a Think Tank. It is quite easy to imagine any number of Western veterinarians (and their institutions) associating to collectively extend their medical expertise to their colleagues and to elephants in Asia. It is much harder to envisualize the larger strategic and managerial aspects of conserving domesticated elephants being addressed through the association of wildlife biologists, veterinarians, animal husbandry experts, foresters, anthropologists, sociologists, lawyers, etc. Many obstacles face the emergence of such a heterogeneous association. Each discipline is indispensable but no discipline has an obvious mandate to take a leadership role. There are few strong natural links between most of the technical disciplines other than the elephant itself. Each specialist with little prior knowledge about elephants would have to study them extensively before being able to practice even his own discipline. A large university would incorporate all the required disciplines, perhaps the only single institution to do so, but a university would also probably lack the resources and international reach to implement its collective expertise, even in a purely leadership role.

An activity similar to but much simpler than a full-blown Think Tank would be a liaison function designed to help Asia better tap the vast, under-utilized reservoir of funds, expertise, and goodwill found in Western animal welfare societies, foundations, and zoos and their support groups. Another much needed job which will be initiated by the West or never done at all is a series of publications aimed at improving the hands-on care of elephants.


Any Think Tank will ultimately be forced to incorporate ethical concerns within its scientific and conservation perspectives. In Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka, close scrutiny by NGOs and a well-informed populace would force an immediate practical concern for ethics. The participation of any mix of Western organizations is equally sure to entail differences of opinion, perhaps even conflict, between two of the prime tenets of ‘political correctness’: being humane to animals and accepting the customs and beliefs of other cultures.

Myriad perplexing questions must inevitably arise, everything from the place of AI in Asia to the strictness of work regulations. Is it ethical to raise elephants to work at a job, logging, considered by many people to be inherently cruel? Is it ethical to breed purely for high numbers of calves? Or should preserving local genotypes take precedence? Should a veterinary program treat elephants at work in illegal logging? Should elephants with poor options for work or food be allowed to wander in a polluted city of eight million people?

Such questions are obviously premature except insofar as they demonstrate the early need for practical guidelines based on a carefully considered ethical stance, perhaps even a declaration of elephant rights. (The first principle of any such declaration must be that each and every Asian elephant in domesticity is a wild elephant and deserves protection as such.) Such ethical concerns, including the rules and mechanisms for dealing with inevitable dissension, should be clarified very early on so as to forestall crippling hostility when projects actually begin.


Domesticated Asian elephants should be conserved because they have played long and honorable roles in warfare, forestry, transcontinental trade, and other human endeavours. Domesticated elephants also merit conservation because of their central role in Asian culture, including two of the world’s great religions. Most important, it is essential to manage domesticated Asian elephants because of crucial roles they could play in the future conservation of wild elephants.

These grand pronouncements are no doubt true but from a strictly pragmatic perspective they probably overstate the urgency. If concerned solely with saving enough elephants to ensure the species’s survival (disregarding conserving national populations and local genotypes), there would seem to be no compelling practical reason - whether in culture, economics, forestry, science, or even wildlife conservation - to launch a major effort to manage domesticated elephants in Asia. Cultural institutions require very few flesh-and-blood elephants. Economically, the more developed countries have so little need for elephants that unemployment is rife, and nowhere except Myanmar does the elephant contribute more than a pittance to any country’s GNP. Forestry no longer finds logging elephants indispensable except for Myanmar and northeast India. Scientific and conservation needs will continue to be satisfied by Asia’s present 16,000 domesticated elephants for another ten or twenty years before serious remedial action is required.

The number 16,000 is awkward because it is so middling. If there were 160,000 domesticated elephants, no conservationists would give them a thought unless they became a pest. If there were only 1,600 domesticated elephants, distributed as they are now, then conservationists and institutions would be scrambling for the right to be their savior. But with 16,000 animals in domesticity there would seem to be no compelling reason to take action, particularly given the elephant’s long life and long reproductive span. From a practical point of view -triaging the allocation of resources - the most logical response is simply inaction.

In the search for a motive for active managment of domesticated elephants, once having disproved culture, economics, forestry, and science and conservation, all that remains is ethics. Both as a wild animal and as a domesticated animal, the Asian elephant in domesticity can make a considerable claim for human support on ethical grounds.

As a bona fide wild animal and an endangered species, elephants kept by man should be seen as prisoners of war, wards of the state deserving special privileges by right of their provenance. Fifty years ago Ferrier (1947) wrote with great prescience, “Elephants are probably the only animals employed by man that have never been bred selectively, and being for all intents and purposes wild animals they should receive much greater consideration than more domesticated animals. Actually the very reverse is usually the case.” Asian elephants in domesticity are forced into an unnatural existence: mostly overworked, often mistreated, and frequently deprived of social contact with their kind. Very few domesticated elephants in Asia will ever receive the coddled care that is theoretically their right as an endangered species.

As a domesticated draft animal, Elephas maximus has for at very least 4,000 years worked for man at the price of untold suffering to itself only to be shunted aside and neglected in its forced retirement. With the elephant’s value as a work animal nearly at an end, man has clearly broken a contract - albeit an unwritten contract - and left an historical debt unpaid. Traditional Asian cultures implicitly obligate each owner to care for his elephants in their retirement, and it would similarly seem incumbent upon Homo sapiens to care for this commandeered subpopulation in its decline. As the last few remnants of millions of elephants to have worked for man, today’s 16,000 elephants clearly deserve, in the jargon of the age into which they have been thrust, a ‘soft landing’.

These animals in chains clearly deserve some succor from the hand of a species which professes to love them but invariably debilitates their lives. Being in Asia, elephants will continue to have to work hard and to receive some mistreatment, but certain fundamental needs can and should be met. The very minimum care owed to domesticated elephants would seem to be, in every Asian country, an earnest attempt to register every elephant, to provide basic preventative veterinary care to as many elephants as possible, and to provide solid protection in national law, including humane work regulations and strict law enforcement. These thoughts are a call to arms, although a very gentle one. It is time to closely examine what is happening to domesticated elephants throughout Asia and to explore all possible avenues to accord them an honorable and peaceful retirement.

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