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The care and management of domesticated elephants in Malaysia - Mohd. Shariff Daim


With the independence of Malaya in 1957, a paramount need to ensure livelihoods for all Malaysians led to the opening up of land throughout the country, including land that was known to be elephant habitat. Each year, thousands of hectares of elephant habitat were taken over by oil palm and rubber schemes and various infrastructure developments such as dams, highways and new settlements. This reduction in elephant habitat because of human encroachment resulted in serious conflicts between man and elephant. As the human population of the country (current population 19 million) has increased the number of man-elephant conflicts and the costs of damage caused by elephants has escalated.

From 1972 to 1978, there was a loss of RM84 125 832 because of elephant depredation in Peninsular Malaysia. In the following ten years, the losses amounted to RM300 million.

The mitigation of these conflicts must be based on a national compromise between meeting the interests of the farmers and the interests of the elephants.

The Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) established the Elephant Management Unit in 1974 to address human-elephant conflicts. One of its first tasks was to domesticate some elephants so that they could assist in relocating wild elephants. This led to the introduction of elephant mahouts in Malaysia.

Malaysia has lost its cultural heritage of keeping and using elephants in daily life, unlike in India and Sri Lanka where elephants are still used in religious ceremonies. Malaysian history tells of the Sultans of Malacca, Perak, Kelantan, Kedah and Pahang keeping elephants at their palaces for use in ceremonies, wars and as beasts of burden.

It was reported by B.H. Weiss (The Strand Magazine Vol. IX.1895 London) that a Malay Chief of a district in Perak, a state in Peninsular Malaysia, used the services of a pawang (traditional spiritual medicine man with supernatural powers) to capture 12 wild elephants. The whole operation involved 50 Malays and Sakais (aborigines) and a few khoonkies (elephants trained to help in the capture or relocation of wild elephants). The wild elephants were restrained in a kubu (stockade) and then taken to a chelong (the stop where the elephants undergo training).

This record shows that the elephant catching and training method originally used in Malaysia was quite similar to the kheddah method that is being practised in India and Myanmar and similar to the krals in Sri Lanka. Traditional elephant catching in Malaysia was more influenced by Indian practices than Thai practices. Unfortunately, this tradition of catching wild elephants ended for some reason in the early nineteenth century. The tame elephants were sold as beasts of burden.

In the early nineteenth century most of the elephants were used to carry tin ore in the British Occupied Settlement. After the Second World War, there was rapid development of roads and a transportation system. Consequently, the need for the services of these elephants diminished together with the culture and tradition of mahouts. At present there is only one individual, Ibrahim Bin Yahya, from Kelantan, who can be considered a traditional elephant mahout, having acquired the skills from his forefathers. He is 70 years old and the tradition of keeping elephants will die out with him as his children are more comfortable using lorries and pick-up trucks rather than elephants.

In 1974, when the DWNP set up the Elephant Management Unit, it engaged six mahouts and four khoonkies from Assam, India to train the local elephant rangers to catch, ride, train and manage the elephants at the base camp. It was considered an alien skill for them to acquire and it was considered more a job than a way of life. However, the training period was too short and the local rangers could only learn how to ride, train and manage the wild elephants at the base camp.

The Indian community in Malaysia still uses elephants for their temple ceremonies. They rent the elephants from the private owners or the zoos as and when required. They are not keen on keeping the elephants at the temple or taking care of them by themselves.

Wild elephant distribution in Peninsular Malaysia

In the early nineteenth century, elephants were found in all the states of Malaysia. However, towards the close of the twentieth century elephants could be found only in seven states. The current population of elephants in Peninsular Malaysia is estimated to be 1 200 to 1 500. They are distributed in small herds within a small home range because of the limited availability of lowland forest reserves and fragmented forests. The states of Pahang, Kelantan and Terengganu have the highest densities of elephants whereas Johore, Kedah and Perak show moderate elephant densities.

Elephant distribution shows a progressive retreat from the south and west of the Peninsula. This has arisen because (a) land clearance has been earliest and most rapid in the southern and western states such as Johore, Selangor, Perak and Negeri Sembilan; and (b) elephants from places of conflict have been translocated to sites in the north and east such as Taman Negara and Terengganu.

As this process of land use change has occurred, there has been no deliberate maintenance of corridors to allow for elephant movements or to maintain viable populations. Historically, land use planning agencies such as the Town and Country Planning Department have never taken into account elephant distribution and population requirements when carrying out their work. They now have better access to information on wildlife, but the effectiveness of their planning is limited by various constraints including the separation of the planning process at Federal level from the implementation process at state level. Within states, large blocks of land have been allocated to plantation agriculture, and cleared and planted with no particular sequencing or other considerations on how best to avoid man-elephant conflicts.

Since 1991, two states, Perlis and Selangor, have lost their last elephants as they have all been translocated to Ulu Belum (northern Perak) owing to intense pressure from development. Negeri Sembilan will be the next state to follow as there is only one herd there made up of three elephants.

By the year 2000, there will be no more elephant herds on the western coastal plain of Peninsular Malaysia. Most of the elephant herds are now found on the eastern side of the Main Range in the states of Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang, where there is a large amount of forest, some of which is protected within Taman Negara National Park. Even in these three states, however, the forest does not constitute a continuous block.

Population estimates of elephants

Wild elephants:

The elephant population of the Peninsula has been variously estimated from time to time as shown in Table 1. Early estimates tended to be based on reported village or smallholder conflicts, and to be limited by lack of accessibility to remote areas. Later estimates have been able to draw on a wider range of information and greater coverage, but have tended to add all additional findings to previous estimates, thus producing possibly inflated estimates or double counting.

Table 1. Estimated wild elephant population


Estimated elephant population










1 115 to 1 171**

* Mohd Khan, ** Shariff Daim

DWNP uses the footprint-count method. This method of survey is found to be very conservative. From experience, the elephant number tends to be underestimated because of the overlapping of footprints along the elephant track and also the condition of the ground where the measurement was taken. An increase of 20 percent would probably be more realistic (Khan, 1990). This leads to an estimated current total population of between 1 200 and 1 500 elephants. To get a more accurate population estimate, DWNP should develop a better technique of counting the number of elephants in the forest. In India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Sabah, Malaysia they use the dung-count method.

Domesticated elephants:

Before the Protection of Wildlife Act 1972 (Act 76) was implemented, there was no proper registration of domesticated elephants in Peninsular Malaysia. In 1997 the number of domesticated elephants was only 20 (Daim, 1996). In the past three years the number has increased rapidly to 36 (Table 2). The sex ratio of elephants is 0.44 males to 1 female. We can expect the number of domesticated elephants to increase even further. The increase in number is because of the new government policy of using elephants in its ecotourism industry. The A'Famosa Safari Wonderland has a special permit from the Minister of Science, Technology and Environment (STE) to keep 20 elephants.

Table 2. Distribution of domesticated elephants registered under special permit with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Peninsular Malaysia (DWNP)






Taiping Zoo

Taiping Town CouncilPerak State.




Johor Zoo

Johor Baru Town CouncilJohor State.




Johor Palace Mini Zoo

Sultan of JohorJohor State.




National Zoo

Zoological Park SocietySelangor State.




Kuala Krai Zoo

Kuala Krai Town CouncilKelantan State.




Kuala Gandah Elephant Training Unit

DWNPFederal Government.




Zoo Melaka

DWNPFederal Government.




Desaru Wildlife Adventure

Desaru Wildlife Adventure Sdn Bhd. Johor State.




A'Famosa Safari Wonderland

A'Famosa Wonderland Sdn Bhd. Melaka State.




Private Owner

En Ibrahim bin YahyaKelantan State.








Note: Compiled by the author

The DWNP is faced with the challenge of monitoring the welfare of domesticated elephants in accordance with the law. In response the Department has come up with a new guideline for zoos and safaris. All elephant owners have to follow this guideline strictly.

The DWNP wildlife inspectors from the Law Enforcement Division in each state monitor the welfare of the state's domesticated elephants. Private elephant owners have to renew their special permits annually. If the condition and the welfare of the elephants are not satisfactory the Director General of the DWNP will recommend to the Minister of STE to revoke the special permit in accordance with the law.

The population of domesticated elephants is only 2 to 3 percent of the total elephant population. There is no captive-breeding programme in Malaysia. There is no interaction between the wild elephants and the domesticated elephants unlike in Myanmar and Thailand where the domesticated female elephants are impregnated by the wild male elephants at the forest fringes. The Malaysian domesticated elephants do not contribute to the wild population.

The public and the NGOs are more sensitive towards the plight of elephants in captivity. They are the first to react if any of the elephants are mistreated and manage to attract the attention of the news media. Sometimes they act as a legal pressure group and can force the authorities to take action to improve elephant welfare.

Out of the 36 domesticated elephants in Malaysia, four have been imported from Myanmar, through a Memorandum of Understanding signed in 1997 between the DWNP Peninsular Malaysia and the Department of Forestry, Myanmar. These working elephants are used to help the DWNP Elephant Management Unit to carry out the elephant relocation programme.

Employment of domesticated elephants

In Peninsular Malaysia domesticated elephants are employed in three different ways:

1. The Kuala Gandah DWNP Elephant Training Centre

The eight elephants at the Kuala Gandah DWNP Elephant Training Centre are specially trained working elephants used as khoonkies to help in carrying out the elephant translocation programme. This programme has been very successful in mitigating man-elephant conflicts in Malaysia. These conches play an important role in ensuring the success of the long-term elephant management plan in Malaysia.

The working elephants are trained to restrain the wild elephants that are captured for relocation purposes. The training centre also raises public awareness of the country's elephants. The mahouts are trained to run interpretative centres where the public awareness programmes are carried out.

Because of great public demand, the DWNP has plans to utilize these elephant training centres for ecotourism. The elephants will be released in a 4.05 ha (10 acres) forest enclosed by electric fencing. The public can safely view the elephants in their natural habitat. The public can have elephant rides and watch the elephants bathing in the river. This programme is still in its infancy.

2. Zoos and safaris

The twenty-six elephants in the zoos and safaris are used for zoo exhibits, elephant rides and performances. Some of the keepers have been trained locally by Indian and Thai mahouts.

3. Privately owned elephants

There are only two elephants that are privately owned and these are in Kelantan. They are employed to work in the rubber wood industry. These elephants have been trained to pull rubber wood logs from the plantation to be loaded onto a lorry. They are owned by the last traditional mahout in the country.


The elephant rangers working for the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Malaysia were trained by elephant mahouts from Assam, India. These rangers were specially trained for the elephant relocation programme. Since 1974, they have captured and relocated more than 400 elephants from fragmented forests to protected forest. These rangers are extremely competent at handling wild elephants and the koonkies during the relocation operations.

As there are fewer elephant problems for the Elephant Relocation Unit to handle the DWNP plans to convert the Kuala Gandah DWNP Elephant Training Centre into an ecotourism area. The elephant rangers must now be trained to handle elephants for tourism proposes. They will receive their training either from Thailand or India as these countries already have very successful programmes using elephants in tourism.

All the mahouts are trained and self-taught. They are not from traditional elephant keeping families like in Thailand, India or Sri Lanka. All zoo keepers too are trained like the elephant rangers. Most of them have received only lower school education. With this background, they are keener on using physical control rather than the psychological method while handling the elephants.

Unlike in the West, zoo keepers and rangers still practise the hands-on method using chains and hooks to control the elephant. This seems to be very cruel by Western standards, where the hands-off method and hydraulic doors are used to manage elephants in musth. The A'Famosa Safari Wonderland hires all their mahouts and trainers from Thailand as it is quite difficult to get locals to work with the elephants.

Laws and registration

The Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Peninsular Malaysia (DWNP) is a federal department under the Ministry of Science Technology and Environment. Elephants are protected by the Protection of Wildlife Act 1972 (Act 76). The Act is enforced by the DWNP throughout the Peninsula. Under the Act it is an offence to kill or injure a wild elephant or to possess or trade in any elephant part or product.

They can only be shot and killed by sanction of the DWNP when there is reason to believe that if the elephant is not shot and killed it may cause loss of human life.

Moreover, if any person provokes or wounds an elephant that consequently becomes an immediate danger to human life, the person, when found guilty can be fined, imprisoned or both.

Any person who unlawfully shoots, kills, takes or unlawfully possesses an elephant or part of it or its trophy is guilty of an offence. He shall on conviction be liable to a fine, imprisonment or both. The penalty is higher if the elephant is a female or immature.

An elephant is deemed to be immature if the two tusks together weigh less than thirty pounds or its forefoot measures less than seventeen inches in diameter.

There are general exceptions and presumptions in the Act. The law permits the domestication of elephants in zoos, safaris and by individuals. The Minister, on the advice of the DWNP, may grant not more than one special permit to each applicant to catch, confine, breed, keep, import or export any elephant or part thereof. In Malaysia, the catching of elephants is only done by the DWNP.

The person or zoo should satisfy the conditions prescribed in the permit. The Minister of STE may attach any condition to the special permit, not contrary to the provisions of the Act. Any person or zoo that contravenes any of the conditions attached is liable to have the permit revoked and on conviction be liable to a fine, imprisonment or both.

Cruelty to elephants is also prohibited by the Act. Any person who injures, mistreats, starves, or confines in an enclosure or cage that is not conducive to the comfort or health of the elephant is guilty of an offence and shall on conviction be liable to a fine or imprisonment or to both.

The Act covers the need for the protection of elephants in their natural habitat as well as the needs of those in constant conflict with elephants, i.e. persons from the agricultural and tourism sectors. For conservation purposes, DWNP prefers capturing and relocating problem elephants to killing them.

Veterinary care and help

According to the latest Zoo Guidelines, drawn up by the DWNP, all zoos, safaris and private elephant owners are compelled to have their own resident veterinarian to take care of the health and welfare of the elephants. If they are unable to afford to employ their own veterinarian, they must engage an external veterinarian from a recognized establishment at least once a month to monitor the health and welfare of the elephants in their care. This is to ensure that the health and welfare of the elephants are properly maintained. If there is any outbreak of an endemic disease, they have to report it to DWNP and also to the Veterinary Department for further action. The veterinarian can also get assistance from the Veterinary Faculty of the University Putra Malaysia.

Summary and recommendations

In Malaysia, the domesticated elephant is treated differently from those in other countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand. The DWNP uses elephants as a tool in assisting the rangers to carry out its translocation programme. There is minimal personal interaction or bond between the elephants and the rangers. In India the mahouts grow up together with the elephants and the bond between them is very strong.

Compared with the traditional mahouts, the rangers are more educated and are more exposed to modern drugs, medicine and techniques in handling and managing the elephants. They do not acquire the cultural and traditional practices of using ceremonies, rituals and superstitions in managing the elephant. These rangers are government servants who can be transferred anywhere and to different units within the Department. There is no tradition whereby their children will grow up with the elephants and become mahouts at the training centre.

The DWNP should set up a special programme with the help of other countries with deep-rooted elephant traditions to create a stronger bond between the elephants and rangers. Admittedly, it is quite difficult to revive the elephant keeping culture and traditions of a country that is economically and socially advanced.

Question and answer session

Q1: The problem of a declining number of mahouts will be faced by all countries at some time, one solution is to give them dignity - perhaps a licence or badge of recognition similar to a tourism guide. What do you think?

A1: I agree. I think they would need training first and then we could do something like this.

A participant from Indonesia stated that such a system would be good in Indonesia too. There could be different grades of mahout such as novice, junior and senior. There could be training courses that would deal with elephant health care and other important topics. Perhaps as a first step there should be a training of the trainers course.

Richard Lair stated that the Elephant Conservation Center in Thailand was opening a mahout training school and they would like to have students from all over the region, especially Indonesia. They are thinking of overcoming the language barrier by hiring trainers from the South of Thailand who speak jawi as this is close to bahasa Indonesia. Those involved in the tourism industry don't know enough English to teach in the language, they only know pidjin English.

A happy elephant with sugarcane fed by a visitor, the Maesa Elephant Camp, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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