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Wild elephants

23,500 ~ 27,500

Charles Santiapillai

Domesticated elephants

2,500 ~ 4,000

Richard Lair



FAO (Anon., 1995d)

India’s domesticated elephants are valuable not only for the work they perform but also as a future conservation tool against inbreeding or genetic drift in wild elephants. Writing of wild elephants in south India, Sukumar (1994) stated, “There is ... a lot of inbreeding or mating between closely related individuals in a small population.” In Periyar in 1995 there were about 650 wild elephants, 50-60% of them being adult females with an intercalving interval of about 12 years; there were only 5 adult males, 3 mukhnas and 2 tuskers {Santosh, 1995}. The cause for so few males is ivory poaching, with a single bandit named Veerappan said to have since the late 1960s killed over 500 elephants (as well as 21 policemen, 12 forest rangers, and 33 other human beings) in the border area of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala (McDonald, 1993). Karnataka lost 126 wild tuskers, many of them quite young, to poachers between 1982 and 1991 (Appayya, 1993).

If ever needed, captive elephants, especially breeding males, could be released into the wild, whether to simply bolster depleted numbers or to ameliorate inbreeding depression through the process often called managed immigration. India’s domesticated elephants are a valuable conservation resource, not just an endearing, anachronistic bit of cultural baggage.

Information about domesticated elephants in India is scarce because while the central government can influence policy, power to implement policy rests largely with India’s eleven elephant-keeping states - and the publication of data is a low priority everywhere. No information on the number of domesticated elephants, much less other parameters, has ever been consolidated or centralized, and thus any search for official information in India presently involves approaching eleven basically sovereign entities.

All of the good ‘elephant books’ about India seem to center almost entirely on capture rather than everyday keeping. One classic about day-to-day care is A.J.W. Milroy’s 1922 book, A Short Treatise on the Management of Elephants. E.O. Shebbeare’s 1958 book, Soondar Mooni: The Life of an Indian Elephant, is good reading but more informative about ambiance than technique.

· See “Capture,” page 62, for books on capture.

Wild elephants

In 1990, India was said to have between 17,310 and 22,120 wild elephants (Santiapillai and Jackson, 1990). In 1996, Charles Santiapillai (Pers. comm.) estimated between 23,500 and 27,500 wild elephants.

Distribution of domesticated elephants

“If an elephant distribution map for ancient India were made, it would probably cover all of India,” wrote Lahiri-Choudhury (1989) of wild elephants, and the same must have been true of domesticated elephants. Today three areas hold domesticated elephants: the south, the north, and the northeast. India presently has eleven states with domesticated elephants, of which Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu are perhaps the most important. While cultural and geographical barriers have held India’s elephant-keeping peoples largely apart, the elephants themselves are moved through those barriers with the greatest of ease. Wild elephants have long been captured in the northeast, in particular, to be dispersed all over India.

Numbers of domesticated elephants

It is rather odd that India, certainly the most famous of all elephant-keeping countries, should have so little published data on numbers. (The flagship publication of Project Elephant offers no numbers at all [Anon., 1993c]). The few published figures for domesticated elephants have been presented by wildlife biologists working outside of their prime area of expertise and interest. Probably mostly gathered from colleagues in the state forest departments, primary sources are never cited and the accuracy of the counting or registration procedures is never discussed. This is no way to disparage the wildlife biologists, who have always been quick to recognize the potential value of domesticated elephants. (The domesticated elephant must often seem a pesky orphan shown up at their doorstep.)

The published figures for recent numbers of domesticated elephants are sparse and perplexing. The first plausible all-India numbers gave 2,910-3,110 domesticated elephants (Jackson, 1985). In that work, R.D. Gupta (1985) estimated 750 for north India; Sukumar (1985) estimated 700 for south India; and Lahiri-Choudhury (1985) estimated 1,460-1,660 for northeast India, offering the only breakdown by state. (Most elephants were in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, with only about 60 animals in West Bengal and Tripura.) These numbers subsequently appeared compiled in the WWF Monthly Report for January, 1986, citing the AESG as the source.

The figures in Table 5 (Santiapillai and Jackson, 1990) giving 300-350 domesticated elephants in south India clash with those of Sukumar (1985), who gives 700, and with Santiapillai (1987), who quotes 600 elephants for the state of Kerala alone. Walker and Cheeran (1996) write, “The population of captive elephants in Kerala has increased and there are at present between 500-600.” A 1979-1989 study of musth in elephants in Kerala included 140 privately-owned bulls alone (Chandasekharan et al., 1992). Assuming the higher numbers for the south to be correct and adding 300 elephants to the south in Table 5, AESG estimates would suggest that there are probably 2,500-3,000 domesticated elephants in India.

Table 5: Domesticated elephants in India, 19901
















1Santiapillai and Jackson (1990).

Anybody pondering the published numbers for domesticated elephants in India must wonder why there are so few. India is a vast country harboring by far Asia’s largest population of wild elephants. India has a tradition of several thousands of years of keeping elephants and the region is the conventionally accepted birthplace of domestication. Why, then, are there so few domesticated elephants? Geographical and ecological factors have always limited the domesticated elephant’s range and numbers, but many development-related discouraging factors have worked to reduce numbers: fewer employment opportunities, deforestation, the decline of the princely states, the halt of legal capture since 1982, etc. Nonetheless, India’s apparently low number of domesticated elephants remains unproved. Two separate sets of evidence suggest that actual numbers could be significantly higher than published estimates: first, the personal opinions of several well-placed observers, and, second, an intriguing set of capture figures out of northeast India.

Questions put to several foresters of long experience unveiled opinions that domesticated elephant numbers might be significantly higher than the AESG’s numbers. Dr. D.N. Tewari, Director General of the Indian Council of Forest Research and Education of the Indian Forest Service, stated that at the 1994 Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, he personally counted 1,400 domesticated elephants, plus or minus a few {Tewari, 1995}. (India’s largest religious fair, the Kumbh Mela - mela means ‘festival’ - attracts as many as two to three million pilgrims and is thus a magnet for money-hunting elephant owners.) Other observers interviewed subsequently said that 1,400 elephants was perfectly possible. Such a high number of elephants in one place suggests the possibility of serious under-reporting for north India, the AESG’s maximum figure for the whole of the north being 750 elephants. Conceivably a few elephants at the mela might have been temporary visitors from other states in the north and even the northeast, but certainly not 700.

Another observer with great field experience, S. C. Dey, Additional Inspector General of Forests (Wildlife), states that there are significant numbers of elephants in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and at least 1,000 domesticated elephants in Kerala {Dey, 1995}. (AESG estimates have tended to a maximum of about 700 for the whole south.) Dey further states that efforts to elicit elephant numbers in Uttar Pradesh have been inadequate, and there could be far more than in either official or published sources. Another observer {Rishi, 1995} believes that nobody can make a close guess and that any estimate is likely to be low.

The low numbers given by the AESG also pose anomalies difficult to explain when considered alongside the vast number of wild elephants captured in the northeast before a ban in 1982. Lahiri-Choudhury (1984) confidently states that between 1961-1979 at least 6,182 elephants were removed from the wild population in northeast India: 586 were shot on Elephant Control License; 32 died of other causes; and 5,564 elephants, mostly calves and sub-adults, were captured.1 Lahiri-Choudhury adds that the “actual figures of elimination are likely to be much higher, as practically no figures are available for poaching and even capture figures are incomplete [author’s emphasis].” Considering the elephant’s long life span and considering that the captives were “mostly calves and sub-adults” (a group with a high survival rate), many if not most of the 5,564 or more elephants captured in the northeast between 1961 and 1979 should still be alive, making it difficult to rationalize the low domesticated numbers for India.

A sum of 5,564 recent captives is more than triple the total number of domesticated elephants given for the northeast in 1985 (Lahiri-Choudhury, 1985). (The year 1985 is only 25 years after the first captures cited and a mere four years after the last capture.) But because most of the elephants captured in the northeast were sold all over the country, the all-India numbers are what really matters. The 1961-1979 offtake of 5,564 elephants was almost double the AESG’s 1990 all-India numbers of 2,760. Those 2,760 elephants in 1990 would have included not only the surviving northeastern captives of 1961-1979 but also many elephants in captivity before 1961. In light of AESG estimates, what happened to the 5,564 captives from the northeast? Some few captives might have been sold into Burma, but at most mere hundreds. Are the others captives dead? Was there an extremely high mortality rate during rough breaking or early training? Many deaths are to be expected in rough breaking, but an astronomically high mortality rate once into normal working life is most unlikely. There was no vast epidemic, so short of massive deaths from unseen reasons, the only way to explain the apparent disappearance of many of the 5,564 elephants captured between 1961-1979 is that many are alive but uncounted.

In estimating a range of numbers for domesticated elephants, the best working low is probably to accept the AESG’s average low of about 2,500 elephants; these numbers were probably derived from incomplete official surveys, so over-reporting is highly unlikely. The best working high estimate is to take cognisance of the opinions of ‘highsiders’ and the ‘phantom elephants’ of the northeast and speculate that there could easily be 4,000 or more domesticated elephants in India.

The question of domesticated elephant numbers in India is quite unclear. Whether because of India’s geographic vastness, bureaucratic indifference, or jurisdiction splintered amongst many states, there simply are no verifiably accurate published figures for domesticated elephants. Expert opinions are at odds. Lahiri-Choudhury (1986) noted the need for an “annual count” and wrote, “It is understood that there used to be such a system in these States [the northeast], but it has not been vigorously pursued in recent years.” It is time for India to begin a concerted, systematic national effort to build a realistic understanding of the numbers (and conditions) of domesticated elephants within its borders.

· See “Registration,” page 56, for a mechanism to begin establishing numbers.

Legal status

Through the following discussion of law in India, one point must be kept constantly in mind: the domesticated elephant in its day-to-day life is and will remain, as it has for millennia, a de facto domestic animal, ordinary private property clear and simple. The domesticated elephant’s legal status as a wild animal, which seems to promise inviolate protection, in fact brings neglect in all essential aspects of care and management other than some law enforcement of the illegal capture and possession of wild elephants.

The following long and tedious discussion of The Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 (as amended up to 1991) might well be skipped by readers willing to accept the discussion’s basic thrust, that the Act has many provisions which could collectively empower the central government to mandate and administer a national census-and-registration effort.

In 1976 India ratified CITES, wherein the Asian elephant is listed in Appendix I, which strictly controls the international trade in all species threatened with extinction. The Asian elephant falls under The Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 (as amended up to 1991), the amendments clearly intended to mirror or work in tandem with CITES (Anon., 1994). (This act, as presently amended, is henceforth termed The WPA of 1972.) Elephas maximus is, curiously, listed in English as the ‘Indian elephant’, an archaic term long abandoned by scientists, including all Indian wildlife biologists.

Unfortunately, for some years the elephant remained listed among the ‘cattle’ in the section dealing with ‘definitions’, thus leaving it possible to argue that even if wild-caught, The WPA of 1992 no longer applied to elephants once they were in domesticity. This anomaly was removed by a 1991 amendment which deleted the whole category of ‘cattle’ and replaced it with ‘livestock’, which excludes elephants. Lahiri-Choudhury (1993) states, “Thus, the elephant now in law, whether wild or domesticated, will come unambiguously within the purview of the Wildlife (Protection) Act.”

Throughout its length The WPA of 1972 makes no special provisions whatsoever for the wild Asian elephant (except ivory), much less any special stipulations for the domesticated elephant. Thus, exactly the same provisions apply to the wild elephant, to the domesticated elephant, and to species as diverse as the Indian one-horned rhinoceros and Hume’s bar-backed pheasant.

The law is very broad and gives the central government, specifically the Director of Wildlife Preservation, wide powers over the individual states and gives individual states wide powers over owners of elephants (including powers of entry, search, arrest, and detention). The powers given to the central government by The Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 were enhanced by the Constitutional Amendment Act of 1976, Entry No. 20. A practising Advocate of the High Court of Delhi and Counsel for the World Wide Fund for Nature-India, Raj Panjwani (1994) wrote of the 1976 amendments:

... now both the Parliament as well as the State Legislatures had the competence to pass laws for protection of wild animals and birds, and in the event of conflict between the Central law and the State law, it is the Central law which would prevail [author’s emphasis]. This amendment had far reaching repercussions, as the Parliament could pass laws which were uniform across the length and breadth of the country, the centre could effectively supervise the functioning of the Chief Wildlife Warden of State and also provide necessary funds and lay down policies for a uniform implementation of the provisions of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

The WPA of 1992 is apparently relatively unencumbered with case law, leaving the Ministry of Environment and Forests with relatively free hands to lay down policies for a “uniform implementation of the provisions of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.” This is a very broad license.2

One other law, The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 (as amended by Central Act 26 of 1982), offers some scope in the management of domesticated elephants (Anon., 1982c). More likely though, as with most anti-cruelty laws in Asia - or anywhere in the world - the 1960 Act is more useful in correcting infractions perpetrated in tourist venues, circuses, laboratories, etc., than in policing villagers far off in the countryside. Nonetheless, the 1960 Act did bring the establishment of the Animal Welfare Board of India, which comprises a large range and number of influential people, so the Act’s larger management potential should not be written off too quickly.

The law and troublesome elephants

The WPA of 1972 originally placed the Asian elephant in Schedule II, Part I, but in 1977 it was amended to move the elephant to Schedule I, rare and endangered species, so as to fall into line with the elephant’s recently gained Appendix I status in CITES (Lahiri-Choudhury, 1992). This change in status, according to Lahiri-Choudhury (1993), was “resented, challenged, and questioned. The elephant became a political issue of the first magnitude, its changed legal status symbolizing unwarranted interference with regional autonomy and way of life.” Much of the resented “interference with regional autonomy” had to do with capture and how to deal with troublesome elephants.

· See “Capture,” page 79 for examples of capture in specific states.

Earlier discussion in the conservation and scientific literature had witnessed a school of thought which believed that the move to Schedule I status might be a loss rather than a gain. Daniel (1978) wrote that the Asian elephant had originally been placed in Part II of Schedule II because of “the possibility that endangered herds certain to be destroyed can be saved by capture ... or at least be prevented from being killed.” He stated that, “The species thus receives complete protection and at the same time is open to management.” The elephant’s new status in Schedule I makes it subject to Section 11, which does allow for the killing or capture of marauding elephants but only after written permission has been sought from the central government, thus thwarting quick responses by the states’ Chief Wildlife Wardens when confronted with emergencies such as crop raiding or human deaths.3

Prompt resolution of human-elephant conflicts can be cogently argued to be good conservation because rapid solutions to problem elephants help to allay villagers’ animosity towards other elephants, thus keeping villagers from seeking their own primitive revenge against any and all elephants. Nonetheless, in justification of a strict interpretation of Section 11, killing or capturing wild elephants should never be undertaken lightly. There is a clear dilemma here with plenty of room for argument.


Many provisions of The WPA of 1972 offer intriguing possibilities for, in effect, registering domesticated elephants nationally. The Director of Wildlife Preservation, an appointed position required under the act, represents the central government and apparently could by executive order create a national registration program by simply requiring individual states to report data that they should have at hand.

Declarations and monitoring

The WPA of 1972 requires “Declarations” from owners, including subsequent reports of births, deaths, and changes of ownership. The crux of the law in terms of registration comes in Chapter V (‘Trade or Commerce in Wild Animals, Animal Articles and Trophies’), which states unequivocally that every wild animal is the property of the state government or, in areas protected by the central government, the central government. Chapter V states that, “No person shall, without the previous permission in writing of the Chief Wildlife Warden [of the state], (a) acquire or keep in his possession, custody, or control; (b) transfer to any person, whether by way of gift, sales or otherwise; or (c) destroy or damage said government property.” Section 40 (1), Declarations, requires that every person having control, custody, or possession of any Appendix I animal in captivity “at the commencement of this act ... shall, within thirty days ... declare to the Chief Wildlife Warden ... the number and description of the animal ... and the place where such animal ... is kept.” Lahiri-Choudhury (1993) states, “Hence, the LPCs [legal procurement certificates] for owners are now legally obligatory.”

A strong case can be made that under The WPA of 1972 all domesticated elephants in India should already have been reported by their owners to state Chief Wildlife Wardens and that consequently a rudimentary census could be conducted by simply gathering and compiling existent owners’ Declarations. Section 40 (2) further enables elephants to be ‘tracked’ by requiring written permission from the Chief Wildlife Officer if the owner wishes “to acquire, receive, keep in his control, custody or possession, sell, offer for sale, or otherwise transfer or transport any animal specified in Sch. 1 ...”

Standard forms needed

Some wild elephants illegally captured in south Assam, according to Deb Roy (1993), have been placed in the mainstream population by means of “false papers of ownership.” Phoney papers suggest the need for better documentation and, further, for individual marking, since an indelible number assigned and affixed at the time an elephant is ‘declared’ or registered renders most bogus documentation useless.

The WPA of 1972 allows for the Chief Wildlife Warden of a state to issue a “certificate of ownership,” although that certificate can evidently take many guises. According to Section 64 (2c), each state government is responsible for “the forms to be used for any application, certificate, claim, declaration, licence permit, registration, return or other documentation.” Lahiri-Choudhury (1992) implies that the forest department of Bihar, for example, requires a “Legal Procurement Certificate,” a term found nowhere in The WPA of 1972, which uses the term ‘Ownership Certificate’; Bihar has evidently exercised its right to devise its own forms - or perhaps these two Certificates serve two distinct purposes. Either case proves the need for and the utility of standard forms.

The duplication of forms by each state appears to be a great waste, both because the nature of forms would seem to be intrinsically non-controversial and even more because the subject of the forms in at least one case - the domesticated elephant - is so likely to cross state borders. Nation-wide forms would be more efficient in both administrative and scientific terms, allowing all data collected by states to be easily coalesced into an all-India database, thus allowing easy comparison and analysis. Perhaps the central government and the various state governments should in the future collectively decide what information needs to be gathered and then design a standard form modifiable by the states only to include local languages, although individual states would be free to collect extra data. (In fact, there is good reason to suggest that the same basic form should be used all over Asia [Lair, 1992].)

Individual identification

The WPA of 1972 also provides the possibility of requiring that each elephant be marked for individual identification, an indispensable prerequisite to effective registration. Section 41 allows the Chief Wildlife Warden to inspect the premises of owners, to prepare inventories, and, most interestingly, to “affix upon the animals, animal articles, trophies or uncured trophies, identification marks in such manner as may be prescribed.” Section 42 specifies that, “The Chief Wildlife Warden may [author’s italics], for the purposes of Sec. 40, issue a certificate of ownership ... to any person who, in his opinion, is in lawful possession of any wild animal ... and may, where possible, mark, in the prescribed manner, such animal article ... for the purpose of identification.” The word ‘may’ implies that while certificates of ownership and marking elephants are not mandatory by law, they effectively become mandatory if so ordered by state Chief Wildlife Wardens. Marking elephants so as to be individually identifiable is a sine qua non for effective management (Lair, 1993), so both Sections 41 and 42 are potentially valuable management tools.

· See “Marking for individual identification,” see page 244.

Conclusions: Registration

The Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 presents a ready made opportunity. Short of creating a special, multi-jurisdictional law applying only to domesticated elephants, which is preferable but not likely, the Director of Wildlife Preservation operating under the aegis of The WPA of 1972 would seem to be the only authority from which a mandatory national census-registration of domesticated elephants might proceed. The state livestock departments should be involved, but as the law stands their participation would have to be purely voluntary.

In order to determine the present number of elephants, central government could require the individual states to coalesce pre-existing data on domesticated elephants (number, age, sex, etc.), preferably to a standard format, and then forward that information to the central government for compilation, analysis, and publication. A perfunctory census would shed some light on numbers, particularly minimum numbers, in India. More complete monitoring and management could follow: shared registration forms, a shared database, marking for individual identification, etc.

The above analysis of the law might make mandatory registration seem an easy job, but the reality could be quite another story. One likely problem is that many private owners in India, as in Sri Lanka and Thailand, will actively evade registration, even when the owner has nothing to hide. (The urge to avoid registration is not unique to India but rather a quite universal, innate distrust of civil servants.) It would probably be very difficult, even counter-productive, for the central government to force individual states into registration efforts in the expectation that those states would subsequently force owners to register their elephants. Preferable would be the willing cooperation of the state governments with the central government, and the willing cooperation of elephant owners with each state. Positive inducements (e.g., veterinary care, infant formula, help in breeding, etc.) will be far more effective than threats in gathering registrants. State governments should be offered support and resources sufficient to ensure that they do the job willingly and wholeheartedly.

· See “Inducements to voluntary registration,” page 243.

Institutions involved

The following discussion assumes that India’s domesticated elephants badly need nation-wide study and support, particularly registration and veterinary care. Key institutions are briefly examined for their likely role in such a national effort. The question of ‘institutions involved’ is exceedingly complex in India - down to the terms used to describe those institutions - because there are eleven elephant-keeping states (or states and union territories), all with significant but varying degrees of autonomy from central government.

The following discussion of institutions suggests very strongly that only an active and whole-hearted collaboration between states and central government, including a wide mix of government agencies, can hope to systematically conserve India’s domesticated elephants.

State forest departments

By legally classifying all elephants, whether in the wild or captivity, as wild animals, The Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1992 has technically saddled state forest departments with monitoring domesticated elephants, a job for which they are unmotivated and unsutied, at least if left entirely on their own.

State forest department wildlife agencies

Wildlife agencies, an agency within state forest departments, have critically important roles to play in policing illegal capture and conducting or supervising the capture of wild elephants for wildlife management purposes, but it is both unrealistic and inappropriate to expect wildlife officials to unilaterally conduct full-scale registration of domesticated elephants in the field, much less to provide any hands-on management. It is simply not the job of a wildlife agency - whether a state or national - to train and license mahouts, vaccinate elephants, inspect elephants on the highways, intrude into villages, etc. Registration and, even more, the supervision and management of domesticated elephants would pragmatically seem to be the job of animal husbandry experts and veterinarians, not game wardens and wildlife biologists.

State forest department logging operations

State forest departments have a limited but tremendously important role as the owner and caretaker of perhaps 5% of India’s domesticated elephants which, while legally clearly the property of individual states, are spiritually or morally the heritage of the entire nation. Forest department elephants are disproportionately important because they are the only elephants in India which can be systematically managed, studied, bred, used in veterinary research, etc.

The elephant operations of state forest departments are living artefacts of the massive logging brought about by colonialization. Krishnamurthy and Wemmer (1995a) state that, “It should be emphasized that the British contribution was mainly in organizing the [elephant] workforce and existing practices, and introducing westernized veterinary methods.” In light of a penchant for voluminous record keeping, surprisingly little has been written about the larger managerial aspects of elephant operations in forest departments.

Even for state forest department logging elephants, India’s only government-owned elephants outside of zoos, it is impossible to determine present nation-wide numbers from published information. (A paper profiling all the state forest department operations would be very welcome.) In Karnataka the forest department owns “about 43 elephants,” all of them seemingly kept in Mysore district (Kushalapa, 1990); a few other similarly vague references for other states are found in printed sources. One can only guess that there are perhaps 200-300 elephants in forest departments in India.

Beyond possessing elephants, many state forest departments employ highly experienced elephant managers whose wisdom would be essential in any attempt to better manage privately-owned elephants. Fighting for their own survival, most forest department elephant operations are too strapped for resources to offer significant physical outreach to privately-owned elephants, but their knowledge remains invaluable. Many state forest departments, particularly in the south, are struggling to survive after deforestation has brought an end to nearly all logging work; many are trying to convert their efforts to tourism and entertainment.

State forest departments also have a key role in monitoring the lives of privately-owned elephants working, or even just grazing, in state forests.

Project Elephant

Daniel (1995) says, “The sustained interest in the conservation of the Asian elephant fostered by IUCN and Indian institutions such as the Bombay Natural History Society, Wildlife Institute of India and Centre for Ecological Sciences, prompted the Government of India to plan the organisation of a PROJECT ELEPHANT similar in principle to Project Tiger... The project is now in operation and is on a much lower level of public awareness than Project Tiger and is funded at a much lower level than Project Tiger....” An effort of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Project Elephant has issued an official publication, Project Elephant (Anon., 1993c), which devotes seven pages to the domesticated elephant in history and another three pages to the mahout-elephant relationship, but gives absolutely no numbers for domesticated elephants, not even those owned by forest departments.

Project Elephant’s “Conservation Strategy” lists eleven aims or objectives which were recommended for the project by a “Task Force, appointed by Govt. of India.” One aim is “To improve the welfare of elephants in domestic use, including veterinary care, training of mahouts, humane treatment of elephants, etc.” But Project Elephant does not say who should conduct this enormous job, and in interviews senior officials basically acknowledged that Project Elephant does not see improving the welfare of domesticated elephants as its particular job - which is absolutely correct. Project Elephant has neither the mandate, the expertise, the funds, or the personnel (particularly veterinarians) to monitor and treat domesticated elephants.

Nonetheless, Project Elephant could play an enormous role in aiding domesticated elephants through mobilizing its considerable intellectual resources and politcal influence. India’s wildlife biologists and conservationists have always been the most astute observers of both the needs and the conservation potential of the nation’s domesticated elephants. Continuing that tradition, Project Elephant would appear to be the only agency in the central government with the vision and resources needed to cogently call for and organize a gathering of all relevant institutions to collectively describe the plight of domesticated elephants, to define problems, and to formulate initial steps towards a degree of management.

· See “Conclusions,” page 70.

Livestock agencies

Each state and union territory in India has a livestock agency supported by the central Department of Agriculture, Ministry of Agriculture. (Usually but not always incorporating the term ‘animal husbandry’, the names of such agencies vary from state to state; henceforth they will be called the ‘livestock department’, the generic term used throughout this book). Short of some unlikely, colossal effort by NGOs, livestock departments are in every Asian country the only institution capable of supervising and providing full-scale monitoring and veterinary care to large numbers of privately-owned elephants. In India livestock departments apparently (it is difficult to generalize across eleven states) presently play a very small role in treating elephants and no role in registering or managing domesticated elephants, the main reason simply being that they have never done so in the past. (Much like the rest of Asia, at the time of the livestock departments’ establishment most elephants in India were well tended by forest departments, maharajahs, and local gentry - and, in any case, there were so many elephants and such a rich environment that management was not a concern.)

National wildlife law has given sole jurisdiction over domesticated elephants to forest departments and excluded - or at least failed to enlist - livestock departments and their massive resources. Livestock departments are quite accustomed to treating great numbers of large domestic animals in rural areas and so officials know the ground intimately. Livestock departments possess significant infrastructure: vehicles, laboratories, pharmacies, and many large-animal veterinarians. Most livestock departments will also have a network of checkpoints along main highways for inspecting domestic animals.

State livestock departments presently appear to be mostly short of expertise on elephants, but they do have many veterinarians who could receive special training. Massive training programs to upgrade large-animal veterinarians to be ‘elephant vets’ would be a small price to pay for being able to mobilize the vast resources of livestock departments.

Non-government organizations (NGOs)

“Quite possibly the most important provision [of the 1991 amendments to The WPA of 1972] from the point of view of individuals and the NGOs is that for the first time, non-officials can directly take instances of violations of this act to the courts,” according to Kumar (1994). The new provision might enable NGOs to help police keepers who abuse elephants. The WPA of 1972 also provides states with two mechanisms for including private citizens in their activities, through reserved seats on the highly influential state Wildlife Advisory Boards and through the appointment of an Honorary Wildlife Warden.4

In Kerala, there is a very active NGO called the Elephant Welfare Association which since 1986 has provided support to domesticated elephants. Aiming to maintain the region’s historical traditions, the association has a veterinary program and a program to grow more food, especially the palms which are a staple. (It would be appreciated if this group, and others like it, could more widely publicise their work, which is of great interest for possible application elsewhere.) The Captive Breeding Specialist Group India (CBSG India), sponsored by Zoo Outreach Organization, is active in zoos and related facilities.

One senior civil servant interviewed blankly stated that he felt the only viable hope for conserving domesticated elephants lay with NGOs, but it is to be hoped that this is not so. Invaluable as they might be, it is hard to imagine NGOs, even with a legal mandate, satisfying all of the domesticated elephants’ needs all across India. India’s vastness and cultural differences ensure that NGOs will naturally tend to operate mainly at a local or state level. An all-India umbrella NGO devoted solely to domesticated elephants would be useful, particularly in a support role: coordinating the efforts of local NGOs, providing ‘plug-and-play’ tools, mobilizing international support, etc.

Veterinary care and health

Surprisingly little has been written about the history and present condition of veterinary care and camp management in India. An excellent outline of the Service Register as used in south India is given, somewhat ironically, in the context of a paper on elephants in Indonesia (Krishnamurthy, 1992). (Each forest department elephant must have its own Service Register, which is essentially a log book.) Krishnamurthy (1989) briefly describes the ideal management of working elephants, briefly covering the whole spectrum from mahouts and bathing to foot care and work load. A recent paper has shed some welcome light on the history of forest departments, including the first glimpse of their social history (Krishnamurthy and Wemmer, 1995b); it suggests that, “The British incorporated both indigenous and European practices into the veterinary management of timber elephants, and invested considerable time and energy to improve care and humane standards.”

Evidently several state forest departments have dispensed with full time veterinary care for their elephants, resulting in poorer care and poorer record keeping. Tamil Nadu and Kerala have retained their veterinarians, thus maintaining traditional good care. Karnataka also has a departmental veterinarian (Kushalapa, 1990). If declining care is common even amongst government-owned elephants, then it must be very difficult to find modern, professional veterinary care for privately-owned elephants.

One well-placed observer, a forester of long experience, interviewed in Delhi in 1995 stated quite emphatically that there were only two good elephant veterinarians in the whole of India, and that one of those veterinarians is retired from official service. That observer felt that in an ideal program one veterinarian would be needed for Kerala; one for the rest of the south (Mysore, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh); one for south Bengal, Orissa, Bihar; one for Uttar Pradesh; one for ‘north Bengal’, and many for the northeast. In reality, complete veterinary coverage of all India’s elephants (using the rule of thumb of one veterinarian for every hundred elephants) would require at least 30 full-time veterinarians, a daunting number.

The picture is not quite so bleak as seen by the above observer. In the past, modern veterinary medicine for elephants was always limited largely to forest department elephants, and good private veterinarians have probably always been few and far between. (Further, until recently many private owners would have shunned Western medicine in any case, preferring traditional herbal medicine [Anon., 1984a].) The number of elephant veterinarians is thus probably growing, and there are many new graduates who could be turned into ‘elephant vets’. There are hopeful signs recently of extending veterinary care to India’s privately-owned elephants, with the south in particular being a hotbed of good works by NGOs, often in cooperation with forest departments and the outreach of civil service veterinarians. Krishnamurthy and Wemmer (1995a) state that in the south there have been recent improvements made “in husbandry, veterinary medicine, and capture techniques.”


Captive births are quite rare in India except for some parts of the northeast (and, in a modern trend, in some state forest departments in the south). Most recruitment comes from capture, until recently capture of truly staggering proportions. Karnataka was the scene of the capture by kheddah of 1,978 elephants between 1873 and 1971; the largest single capture was 170 in 1896-97. Sukumar (1992) says, “Between 1868 and 1980 the available figures of captures in the Indian sub-continent add up to 19,000 elephants, assuming that an annual average of 400 elephants were captured in Assam for ten years during the late 19th century. Considering the lacunae in data, it is estimated that between 30,000 and 50,000 elephants would have been captured or killed in control measures during this period.” A grossly disproportionate share of captures have always been in the northeast.


The capture of elephants in India has produced much fascinating reading. The first book was G.P. Sanderson’s massive Thirteen Years among the Wild Beasts of India (1879), which describes his early kheddah captures in Bengal and also his 1874 capture of 53 elephants by kheddah in the Biligirirangan hills of south India. (This kheddah was accomplished in the face of a malediction by Hyder Ali, who after failing about a hundred years earlier, laid a curse on any man who should later attempt the task.) Milroy (1927) wrote briefly but powerfully about catching elephants in Assam. Wemmer (1995) eulogizes Milroy and describes the reforms he almost single-handedly brought to a brutal and wasteful system of capture. P.D. Stracey’s Elephant Gold (1963) is a rich mosaic covering many aspects of the man-elephant relationship but preeminently capture in the northeast.

Capture of wild elephants has been banned in India since 1982 (or, according to some sources, 1981), but there is undoubtedly a significant number of illegal captures in the northeast, primarily by tribal peoples. Sukumar (1992) wrote that illegal capture was rife in the northeast. Referring to southern Assam, Deb Roy (1993) wrote that recently some wild elephants have been killed for meat and some elephants “may have been captured illegally by local Mela Shikar ‘mohaldars’ who trained them inside the jungles and brought them out on false papers of ownership.” (Police officers told Deb Roy that when they raided one illegal ‘training’ site they found “a tightly roped young tusker, which had suffered untold torture and died soon after because of severe internal haemorrhage....”)

A modest amount of legal capture of elephants still occurs for legitimate wildlife management purposes, all justified or rationalized under Sections 11 and 12 of The WPA of 1972. Das Choudhury (1981) states that the state of Meghalaya until 1976, when it adopted The WPA of 1972, allowed regular mela-shikar hunts (mahals). The professed motive was “to keep elephants within the carrying capacity of their habitats, and also to minimise the extent of raids on the cultivated fields of the poor villagers....” When the mahals were discontinued after the reclassification of the elephant to Schedule I, “This added to the misery of the people residing within and around the forest areas.” Consequently, after much soul searching regarding the elephant’s new status, Meghalaya allowed some capture until 1980, using as justification Section 11 of the law.

In 1985 the forest departments of Assam and Meghalaya, according to Sukumar (1992), were permitted to capture 200 elephants to reduce depredations on crops. Between 1986 and 1993 in Karnataka alone some 52 wild elephants in pocketed herds were captured by chemical immobilization (Appayya, 1993). All 52 elephants were, rather suspiciously, “young tuskers or Makhanas” (thus all males), and 36 were retained for “Departmental use.” Of the remaining 16 animals, there were 5 “casualties” and 11 were released into Nagarhole National Park, though two of them returned to the site of their capture, almost 150 kilometers away, some nine months later.

The issue of capture will not go away. The Action Plan of Project Elephant (1993c) states, “Notorious crop raiding elephants or small-hemmed-in populations which are in regular conflict with people may have to be translocated or captured for domestication.” The Conservator of Forests for Karnataka (Kushalapa, 1990) wrote, typical of many other voices, “Culling them or capturing them [wild elephants], if they grow beyond the carrying capacity is ... suggested.” After stating that the culling of non-viable wild populations is unacceptable for cultural reasons in India, Daniel (1995) says, “The only available alternative is capture and domestication. Apparently it is now the Central Government’s policy to encourage the use of forestry practices as they were in former years. It should also be possible to meet the requirements of non-governmental needs.” But capturing wild elephants for modern management purposes poses two critical questions: the particular animals to be captured, and the people or the institutions to which they will be sold or gifted.

The choice of which animals to capture poses many knotty and controversial questions. The elephants that are the most desirable to man are also the fit young males, breeders or breeders-to-be, most needed to keep wild populations healthy. Unfortunately, this group is also often involved in crop raiding. Many of the older elephants that practice general marauding are undesirable in captivity, dangerous and likely to resist training, even to the point of death.

The issue of the ultimate recipients of captured elephants also poses many controversial questions. Post-capture quality of life will depend on each captive’s age and sex, the type of work it is sent off to, and the owners it will likely reach. Disposal to government agencies is often presumed best, because non-commercial, but most forest departments could absorb only few elephants - and forest departments invariably expect to pick the cream of the crop. Many state forest departments are in serious decline with no profitable logging work, and so more elephants, no matter how fine the animals, would be a burden.

Concerned with the overwork and cruelty often meted out by private owners, Daniel (1982) wrote, “No contractor or commercial interest should be permitted under any circumstances, which also means that the captured elephants should not be sold to private parties.” (Current public opinion might make it difficult to auction elephants off to private buyers in any case.) One senior central government official confidentially told the author that many people in his office had been asking themselves and their colleagues what possible justification there could be in capturing wild elephants - even animals doomed in their forest home - to ‘save’ them by casting them into a miserable existence skidding logs or performing circus tricks or living as a solitary in a temple. Some captures are obviously justifiable, but it is important that the ethical questions be carefully pondered in every instance - or, better, perhaps substantive guidelines could be established.

Captive breeding

Any attempt to assess the birth rate in India, whether nationally or by region, will fail simply because there is no data whatsoever. Nonetheless, a consensus of opinion in India would surely agree that the birth rate is very low and the population is declining. Krishnamurthy and Wemmer (1995a) say, “The future of working timber elephants is under threat in India as it is for all captive elephants, because natality does not match mortality.” As for the future, Sukumar (1992) says, “Domestic stocks of elephants are bound to decline if not replenished through captures from the wild.” A slow but steady decline must follow the ending of recruits from the wild.

One factor behind India’s low birth rate is purely logistical or demographic. Sukumar (1992) suggests, “A large proportion of captive elephants are scattered in small groups or as solitaries.” But at least two other general inhibiting factors lie behind India’s low birth rate: first, the fact that historically nearly all captive-born calves have been sired by wild bulls, and, second, a culturally-based prejudice against breeding.

By far the greater share of births in captivity in India have been sired by wild bulls covering cows set out to feed and rest. If one were to count only calves sired by domesticated bulls, India’s already very low birth rate would be abysmally low. Sterndale (1884), writing of India, speaks of only once in his lifetime seeing an elephant born in captivity. Chaturvedi (1951) describes almost with wonder an incident in south India where an escaped cow mated with a wild bull to give birth after being recaptured. Today, having wild bulls as an unplanned but serendipitous source of breeding males is a waning resource constantly losing importance as wild numbers fall and as deforestation erodes contact between wild and domesticated elephants. Captive births are probably more frequent in northeast India than in the south or the north, partly because of wild sires and partly because of cultural differences. (Many of the tribal peoples of the northeast will at least allow nature to take its course, if not actively encourage breeding.)

In south and north India, there has long been a body of folk belief, probably tinged with Hindu cosmology, which discourages breeding. (See “Breeding,” page 153, for a similar set of beliefs in Sri Lanka.) Chaturvedi (1951) writes that elephants in south India are seldom allowed to breed. In northern India bulls have often had their penises beaten for simply getting an erection {Mukherjee, 1995}. In south India many elephants belong to Hindu temples which have specific prohibitions against breeding. (To be fair, particularly where elephants are plentiful and cheap, there are other widely shared reasons for preferring wild-caught to captive-born elephants: they are thought to be more trustworthy, they do not need to raised from infancy, etc.)

Not too much should be made of cultural prejudices against breeding, except in cases where bulls are owned by temples. In south India, such inhibitions have been quickly discarded when it was shown that breeding neither debilitated bulls nor was it as difficult or dangerous as feared. The birth rates in south India’s progressive forest departments, though always low, were still always much higher than the private sector. In Tamil Nadu some 37 forest department cows kept in “semi-natural conditions” were “fairly successful breeders”; between 1950 and 1983 they gave birth to 74 calves, some sired by domesticated bulls and some by wild bulls (Sukumar, 1992). Between 1888 and 1992, according to Krishnamurthy (1995), a total of 209 calves were born in Tamil Nadu. One phenomenal cow, Tara, dropped twelve calves, including a set of twins; her last calf was born when she was about sixty-two years old.

“There is scope for slowing the decline [in domesticated elephants] through breeding programmes. Although no successful captive breeding model is available it is surely possible to develop one through investigations into the reproductive biology of captive elephants,” wrote Sukumar (1992). In fact, although welcome, no elaborate investigations are required. Most of the changes needed to increase breeding are quite clear: cease overwork, increase social proximity, increase feeding time, track estrus cycles, seek out proven bulls, etc. Such improvements are well within the ability of field managers to implement so long as they are given adequate funds, manpower, and the right to control elephants’ movements. For government-owned elephants, a new set of priorities must be given by senior management: success is to be measured at least partly in calves produced and not solely in log tons skidded, passengers carried, festivals marched in, etc.

The primary force presently keeping birth rates low amongst domesticated elephants is economics. If managers reduce work loads and gather in reproductively fit elephants from isolated work sites, they will experience a decline in profits.

Conclusions: Recruitment

The demographics of India’s domesticated elephants - at least as far as discernable through the murky data- clearly suggest that with no young wild recruits and with a very low birth rate, the median age will rise and reproductive potential will decline, especially in the south and the north. If India wishes to preserve its domesticated elephant numbers at anywhere near present levels, then now is the time to begin improving captive breeding to avoid a moribund population two or three decades in the future.

To increase captive breeding in India will, much like it would in Thailand, be difficult because well over 90% of the elephants are privately-owned; and even the few government-owned elephants are separated geographically and also split administratively between many states. Unlike Myanmar, where a simple executive order can establish new breeding priorities for nearly 3,000 domesticated elephants, in India and Thailand the only hope to improve breeding, just as with registration, is to entice private owners into voluntary participation in breeding programs through positive inducements and support.


One observer noted that in 1960 an average elephant cost US$150 while in 1995 the same elephant cost three lakhs of rupees or US$10,000. Even allowing for inflation, this is a huge price differential. As a result of the 1982 ban, Lahiri-Choudhury (1989) wrote, “Prices have shot up.” A desirable mature cow in 1983 cost five times the price in 1981.

At the 1991 Sonepur Mela, according to Lahiri-Choudhury (1992), the West Bengal Forest Department purchased three prime cows for about Rs. 100,000 each, prices little different from those asked and paid in 1987. The most handsome tusker at the 1991 fair had an asking price of Rs. 170,000. Chadwick (1992) states that the cost of a bull in Kerala was between Rs. 100,000 and 200,000, the same range given by another source (Anon., 1993c) for prices at the Sonepur market depending on “age, size, sex and quality.”

Insurance companies’ assessments of price or market value should be quite accurate as to prices (although probably consistently low), but far more interesting and useful is price relative to age, sex, and tuskedness.

Table 6: Market value (Rupees) of elephants for insurance purposes, India, 19921







8,000 - 10,000

5,000 - 8,000



7,000 - 15,000

7,000 - 10,000



10,000 - 20,000

10,000 - 15,000



25,000 - 35,000




40,000 - 150,000












20,000 - 25,000

15,000 - 20,000

1These figures were issued by the United India Insurance Co.; they have been taken from Azeez et al. (1992) and slightly rearranged to improve readability. Logic would say that missing from the original is a line for “26-50, Mukhna.”

Some elephants brought to the Sonepur Mela, according to Lahiri-Choudhury (1989) were there “more for parading the pride of possession of the owner than for sale.” “Pride of possession” coupled with increasing rarity value must keep prices high, especially for tuskers.

The market

The largest and most frequently described animal market in India is undoubtedly the two-week long Sonepur Mela in north Bihar near Patna. A very ancient annual fair, the mela centers about the buying and selling of domestic animals, including elephants. According to Lahiri-Choudhury (1989), “It is the season’s first, and the greatest of the four important animal fairs of northern Bihar.” The Sonepur fair has long served as an entrepot selling many of the year’s captive elephants from northeast India to buyers who take them all over India.

In the 1920s the fair usually attracted over 700 elephants (Woodhouse, 1925). Stracey (1963) talks of similar numbers. As late as 1976, Lahiri-Choudhury (1992) saw over 600 at Sonepur. The author saw what was said to be over 500 elephants in 1978. Immediately following the 1982 ban on capture in India, the fair began a severe and regular decline. Lahiri-Choudhury (1989) says there were around 300 elephants in 1984 and only 225 in 1985, “most of them decrepit, blind, or lame animals, with no takers.” Shand (1995) in 1988 saw over two hundred elephants at the Sonepur Mela but in 1991 he saw only 68.

The 1991 fair attracted 42,005 bullocks, 2,384 horses and ponies, but only 90 elephants (Lahiri-Choudhury, 1992). More important than the low number, Lahiri-Choudhury says that the 1991 fair hosted not a single calf and that over half the elephants were “decrepit creatures with some physical defect or the other ... and, therefore, with few or no takers.” It has also been said (Anon., 1993c) of India generally that, “Good female elephants of proper size and age have become a rare commodity in recent years.” Does Sonepur’s recent lack of good cows indicate that owners have realized that with no more cheap captives they must hold on to cows of breeding age? Or, worse, does it indicate a simple scarcity of prime-age cows?

“The simple fact of the matter is, elephants are no longer available for domestic use,” concludes Lahiri-Choudhury (1989), who states that the few buyers are forest and tourism departments, circuses, timber companies, and south Indian temples buying tuskers. Wemmer (Pers. comm., 1996) says that the demand for domesticated elephants in Bihar and Orissa is dead, but there are still lively markets in Arunachal, Assam, and Kerala.


In the past, a major source of work has been the elephant stables of aristocrats, whether to work in transport, war, construction, or ceremony. The Emperor Jehangir might have had as many as 40,000 elephants throughout his empire, including 12,000 owned by him directly (Olivier, 1978b). When in 1875 the first Indian student, the Maharajah of Alwar, arrived at Mayo College (the ‘Eton of the East’), his retinue included 500 servants, 600 horses, and 12 elephants; one prince attending Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in England in 1887 brought along 33 tame tigers and 10 elephants (Morrow, 1986). The elephant pilkhanas of Mysore were long viewed with awe, both in terms of quantity and quality. Even as late as the 1950s the Rajas of Nilambur and Kollongode kept elephants, the latter having more than thirty (Krishnamurthy and Wemmer, 1995a). Such examples could be given endlessly but, unfortunately, the exquisitely managed elephant stables of the aristocracy have now totally vanished.

No systematic study has ever been conducted on the various jobs now being performed by elephants in India. With the exception of a modest amount of hard information for south India, knowledge is limited to personal opinions. Information on employment is badly needed because the availability of paying work is everywhere the factor which will determine the future of domesticated elephants in private hands. Over the long term, work - or the lack thereof - will shape elephant numbers far more than will subsidized breeding, artificial insemination, improved veterinary care, and all other technical management techniques combined.

Because most distant travel will be related to making money, monitoring cross-border moves could do much to elicit types and patterns of employment. India, unlike Thailand, requires no prior permission to move elephants across state borders, but once moved the elephant must subsequently be reported to the state’s Chief Wildlife Warden within 30 days. If information on work performed could be collected upon reporting, that would clarify many questions about types and conditions of employment.

In the northeast one can only suppose that work patterns remain similar to the traditional norm, consisting primarily of logging, transport, village work, and - even though now illegal - some capture of wild elephants. Because of a demand for logging elephants, according to Lahiri-Choudhury (1989), many elephants captured in the northeast as young animals and then dispersed all over India were being purchased back into the region. (He says that elephants are continuing to prove more efficient than machinery dependent on expensive fuel and skilled human labor.) One oft-suggested modern form of work, although closely resembling traditional capture, would be to hire traditional elephant catchers (phandis) to practice what has been termed ‘anchored mela-shikar’, or the use of khoonkies to chase away crop-raiding wild elephants.5

In north India nowadays, the primary kinds of work, according to many people, are participating in weddings, festivals, and tourism. Circuses have also been popular in the north since ancient times. One observer {Rishi, 1995} said that many young elephants are sold to circuses from where, after having passed their usefulness, they are subsequently sold back into the private population, often seriously flawed. (Anybody who has spent some time behind the scenes of an Indian circus will realize that kindness is not normally the guiding principle - which explains the flaws.) Many elephants are owned, or sometimes rented, by mendicant holy men (sadhus), whether bogus or legitimate; Shand (1991) gives a charming but chilling insight into this normally impenetrable world.

In south India, according to Santiapillai and Jackson (1990), there are about 150 elephants “used in forestry” and about 150-200 elephants owned by Hindu temples. Work opportunities in logging are at a low ebb in the south. Speaking of Kerala not so long ago, Krishnamurthy and Wemmer (1995a) write, “Kozhappatodi Haji, a private timber merchant and contractor who lived near Calicut until the late 1960s, maintained a force of over 90 working elephants, mostly tuskers.” But such halcyon logging days are long gone, and Krishnamurthy and Wemmer conclude that a huge drop in timber resources has brought “idle elephant power” and that “the demand for working elephants is on the decline” in the south. Kushalapa (1990) says, “There is complete stoppage of extraction of trees in the forests, except dead and fallen ones, so there is very little work for departmental elephants....”

A recent study of 140 bulls owned by temples and individuals showed that 109 animals engaged solely in festival work while only 31 also worked at log hauling (Chandrasekharan et al., 1992). Of Kerala, Chadwick (1992) says, “Given the fees a ceremonial bull could command, coupled with the decline in logging work as forests continued to shrink, the competition among owners to rent out their animals for special occasions was intense.” Walker and Cheeran (1996) write that “there is an unprecedented increase in the use of elephants in festivals in Kerala. Festivals of all communities (Hindu, Muslim and Christian) using 50 or more elephants are not rare.” The 43 forest department elephants in Mysore district are used primarily to provide rides for tourists in protected areas and to join in religious festivals, particularly that of Dasara in Mysore city (Kushalapa, 1990).

Krishnamurthy (1989) notes that even though the elephant is essentially a herd animal, in south India “many temples and private owners, however, have elephants which lead a lonely life.” (He poignantly adds, “Many such elephants lead a miserable life, and in particular the tuskers who many a times show a behaviour that veers from timidity to violence.”)

In both north and south India, well-paid work is even more important than in the northeast, which still has sufficient forest that most elephants can be fed for free by chaining them out at night. In the south and the north, not unlike Sri Lanka, many elephants must have their food purchased and brought to them. One observer noted that in the south it was more expensive to maintain an elephant than to run an automobile, the major cost being food. Deftly describing the dealings of an elephant broker in Kerala, Chadwick (1992) states that the annual upkeep for an elephant runs between Rs. 32,000 and 40,000, including mahouts’ wages. In Karnataka it costs about Rs. 120 a day, or Rs. 43,200 a year, to keep a forest department elephant, including food and the mahout’s and assistant’s salaries (Kushalapa, 1990).

Elephant keeping has always suffered declining standards of care when decisions are made by businessmen and accountants, even business managers in civil service. Krishnamurthy and Wemmer (1995a) write that:

During the British Raj the elephant establishment was categorized as a ‘work-charged establishment’, meaning that employees were maintained as long as work existed. Once work was completed the services of the jemedar, mahouts, and cawadies were transferred to another area, or terminated.... In times of shortage surplus elephants were disposed of by auction.

Such rejection visited on mahouts and elephants in the old days - all ordered in the name of expediency by financially secure civil servants - is still happening to many government mahouts and elephants. Today the rejection is not so much from dispassionate business decisions but rather unavoidable responses to a catastrophic decline in logging; some forest department elephant operations are degenerating into senescence. Some forest departments have turned to privately-owned elephants; Krishnamurthy and Wemmer (1995a) state, “The West Bengal Forest Department is extracting large quantities of timber annually through private contractors who employ mechanized equipment and privately hired elephants.”

While policies such as ‘hire-and-fire as needed’ or hiring outsiders or benign neglect might be superb business strategies, such practices are destructive if government-owned elephants (and their mahouts) are viewed either as an irreplaceable resource in the conservation of wild elephants or even as something of value in their own right. Society seems to accept the domesticated elephant’s decline as natural entropy, which is correct pragmatically but does nothing to ease the increasing tribulations of struggling owners, impoverished mahouts, and misused elephants.


Nearly all government-owned elephants belong to state forest departments, which seemingly have about 200 to 300 animals or a number probably not reaching even 10% of India’s total population. The only government-owned elephants outside of forest departments are in zoos. The Central Zoo Authority of India (CZA), according to Walker (1992), is chaired by the Minister for Environment and comprises “eleven other members drawn from the forest, wildlife, veterinary, zoo, and animal welfare establishments both governmental and non-governmental.” (There is also a separate Indian Zoo Director’s Association.) Each of India’s over 200 wild animal facilities must submit a formal application to the CZA to be granted recognition; in some cases these facilities will even be given financial aid so as to improve their conditions.

As for privately-owned elephants, regional cultural differences suggest that in south and north India, much as in Sri Lanka, a high percentage of elephants probably belong to non-mahout owners who must hire mahouts, an often unhappy situation. (See “The socio-economic perspective,” page 17.) One would suspect a significantly higher proportion of mahout-owners in tribal areas of the northeast. Nonetheless, guesswork is only guesswork; extensive field investigations are badly needed to determine ownership patterns in India because the balance will inevitably have great impact on management and on the elephant’s survival.

Writing about Kerala, Walker and Cheeran (1996) say, “During the past three to four decades the ownership of elephants and the profession of mahout underwent a sea change. Elephant ownership, traditionally confined to the big landlords, has now come to many, who own an elephant as an economic proposition like owning a truck or taxi.” One can only suspect that “the big landlords” were often high-caste and had extensive inherited knowledge of elephants, whereas the new owners often lack crucial knowledge. Walker and Cheeran deduce that “a capsule course also needs to be developed for [inexperienced] private elephant owners so that they can understand the needs and problems of mahouts and provide a better working environment for their elephant.” Writing of the Sonepur mela, Lahiri-Choudhury (1989) said, “Over the years the character and composition of the buyers have changed. Formerly the main demand was from the landed gentry and the feudal order.”

Temples are big owners in south India. Santiapillai (1987a), citing Dr. J. Cheeran as personal communication, says that of the about 600 elephants in Kerala approximately 50% were owned by temples, with the figure rising to 60% in the central district of Trichur, where there were about 160 elephants. One temple alone, Guruvayur, had 40 elephants.


In terms of mahoutship, it would be pleasing and appropriate if India, the apparent mother of the tradition, survived as a last bastion of historic high standards, but this seems not to be so. Virtually every forester and veterinarian interviewed who had ever worked with elephants bemoaned a precipitous decline in mahoutship. One official, in a typical opinion, said that perhaps as few as 20-25% of today’s mahouts meet the high standards that still prevailed thirty-five years ago when he began his career. He said that presently many young men fall into working with elephants just as a job and leave within a year or two, the shortest time in which reasonable competence might be achieved. (In Thailand transient employment as a mahout by youths from families which never kept or rode elephants is an increasing, unhappy pattern emerging because of development-related reasons very similar to India.)

In Project Elephant (Anon., 1993c), it is written that, “Today anybody who can mount and ride an elephant is becoming a mahout for his livelihood.... This has been the reason for the increase in the number of conflicts between mahouts and elephants.” Project Elephant continues, “In recent years there have been reports about the cruelties being inflicted upon elephants by mahouts.

Project Elephant concludes that, “The old traditions of compassion and kindness to the elephants have to be restored and regular training programmes for mahouts about handling the elephants in a more humane and affectionate manner have to be organised.” As for a perceived increase in cruelty, the author would suggest that there is rarely any conscious effort to cause pain for pain’s sake. The abuse springs most obviously from poor training but also from the loss of supervision that followed the extinction of the elephant stables of the aristocrats: the pilkhanas of the maharajahs of Mysore, the stables of Ahom kings in old Assam, the herds of local gentry, and even the classically-run forest department elephant camps. Young mahouts will often abuse elephants unless they are under excellent supervision, but mostly from sloth or ignorance rather than cruelty. What Project Elephant has noted is a collapse in cultural institutions rather than a rise in gratuitous cruelty amongst mahouts.

Daniel (1995) states that “it is essential that a school for the capture, management and training of elephants and mahouts be established immediately. The expertise is available in India and the need is urgent.” Project Elephant’s Action Plan blythely suggests that “elephant managers” as well as mahouts would benefit from special training courses, to be provided by both government and private organizations. There is no mention of who could or should establish a curriculum, find the teaching expertise, arrange venues, and fund such programmes. It would seem that the job will ultimately be done by local NGOs or done not at all.

In Kerala, a three-month training course was conducted recently for seven mahouts of less than optimal experience (Walker and Cheeran, 1996). (While laudable, the very need for such teaching clearly indicates the rapid demise of traditional institutions within which such a lapse would never have occurred.) The prime organizer of the course, the Elephant Welfare Association, was supported by the forest department of Kerala, the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, and the Zoo Outreach Organisation/CBSG, India. The training course was planned with an eye to developing a model to be used elsewhere in India and, interestingly, to explore protocols for a licensing procedure.

Cultural dimensions

“In many parts of India, the local tribals are associated with the capture and training of wild elephants and many of them are excellent elephant-men,” wrote Krishnamurthy (1989). Krishnamurthy and Wemmer (1995a) wrote, “The use of tribal people as elephant handlers clearly pre-dated the establishment of elephant camps by the British. Indian people evidently relied on tribals as a source of jungle expertise, and to capture and train elephants....”

Such tribal traditions were extremely varied; Krishnamurthy and Wemmer conclude that, “It is unlikely that a uniform elephant husbandry was practiced by the diverse groups that came to be employed by the forest departments.” In south India many mahouts are tribals. In Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka, there are Jainu Kurubas and Betta or Hill Kurubas; in Kerala there are Mannars and, especially in the Annamalai mountains, Mallasars {Sambhu Prasad, 1995}. Of the mahouts of the Karnataka forest department, some in the Kodagu area are tribal while others are Muslim, originally having come from Bengal; the command words are a mixture of Bangla and Urdu (Kushalapa, 1990). Northeast India also has many traditional elephant-keeping and elephant-catching cultures, including the Ahom and the Rabha, from Assam and Meghalaya. Virtually all of the mahouts in Assam are tribal. In Madhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh the mahouts are a mix of tribals and non-tribals.

Only snippets have been recorded about tribal mahouts; nowhere in India has a traditional elephant-keeping tribe been adequately documented. An anthropologist could fairly quickly compile a reasonably complete literature survey, which should be done. Also, anthropologists could and should determine the present status of tribal groups which either keep elephants or hire out as mahouts.

One of the goals of the Elephant Welfare Association’s 1996 training course in Kerala was “to upgrade the image of mahouts and the profession of mahout both in their own eyes, that of their [elephants’] owners, and the public.” A distinguished Indian anthropologist once said that “frustration and a feeling of inadequacy seem to make members of the small tribal communities in the South suffer from a severe inferiority complex.” Despite their mastery of the great elephant, tribal mahouts will also share such feelings of inferiority, feelings which can be witnessed elsewhere in developing Asia. One visible evidence of this common depression is rampant alcoholism among tribal mahouts, a fact mentioned by many people. (Alcoholism is also very common in Sri Lanka.)


Like many other Asian countries, if India can be said to have a de facto national animal, it must be the elephant. (The tiger, the only other likely candidate, is too fierce and lacks the elephant’s myriad and mostly beneficent cultural and religious associations.) The book Project Elephant (Anon., 1993c) says, “Elephants have always been so much a part of India’s myths, history, and cultural heritage that protecting and ensuring the survival of this animal means much more to an Indian than protecting just another endangered species - it is more like protecting a magnificent presence which has come to symbolise India.”

Unfortunately, nobody has ever seriously attempted to assemble data on domesticated elephant numbers, much less to study their living and working conditions, even though there are only about 3,000 domesticated elephants remaining, or one elephant for about every 300,000 Indians. The Director of Wildlife Preservation could probably organize an emergency census by requesting or requiring all existent data on numbers from the individual states. India could subsequently strive to accurately register all of its elephants to a standard format and to regularly publish the results. (Much like Thailand or Sri Lanka, computer technology could enable various states and agencies to share data without conflict.)

As numbers fall and environments deteriorate, domesticated elephants are facing ever more new problems, especially in the south and the north: unsuitable employment, unemployment, inadequate veterinary care, poor nutrition, poor social environments, and, perhaps most insidious, deteriorating standards of care. Krishnamurthy and Wemmer (1995a) say that, “Elephant management continues to evolve, but many practices of the past have been lost through inattention.” A decline in mahoutship is a growing, frightening problem over much of India. In Kerala, a shift in work patterns (a decline in logging and greater demand for elephants in festivals) and a shortage of competent mahouts have worsened keeping conditions. Walker and Cheeran (1996) write, “Unfortunately the elephant has had to pay the price for all of these changes....”; they state that many elephants have died and that in response to cruel treatment many elephants have killed mahouts.

As everywhere else in developing Asia, in India only an inter-agency, inter-disciplinary effort can hope to conserve or caretake domesticated elephants. Wildlife agencies (within forest departments) possess the legal mandate and the essential scientific and intellectual resources; wildlife agencies also control the complex interface between the wild and domesticated subpopulations. Forest departments caretake the nation’s only government-owned elephants outside of zoos and also oversee the forests which are havens providing essential food and work. Livestock departments possess essential physical infrastructure, intimate knowledge of the countryside, and crucial technical expertise which, with some training, could be turned to elephants. NGOs and academic institutions possess great local knowledge and a dedication which gives them unique legitimacy when dealing with elephant owners, mahouts, and the public.

In practice, forest department wildlife agencies, through a national law drafted to reflect and implement CITES, have been given the sole legal mandate to safeguard Elephas maximus in captivity in India, and that mandate would seem to bring an obligation to try to solve problems. Wildlife agencies can never and will never be the primary care provider in the field, but it is hard to see any entity other than Project Elephant (in conjunction with the Director of Wildlife Preservation and state forest departments) with the scientific, analytical, managerial, and financial resources - as well as the political clout - to provide the spark for a national conservation program for domesticated elephants. India has held many conferences, both regionally and nationally, on wild elephants; Project Elephant could convene a working meeting of India’s foremost experts devoted solely to domesticated elephants.

Once having started the conservation process, Project Elephant and other wildlife agencies could, justifiably satisfied, walk away from the management of elephants in domesticity except, of course, for its two appropriate and clear-cut roles as enforcer of CITES and as the all-important interface between wild and domesticated elephants.

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