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Keynote address

A regional overview of the need for registration of domesticated Asian elephants - Richard Lair

Domesticated Asian Elephant Specialist and FAO Consultant

I firmly believe that Asian elephants, having never been selectively bred, are wild animals pure and simple, and, therefore, they should not be kept in captivity. Nonetheless, I equally firmly believe that, at least into the medium future, very few elephants will be released into the wild, partly for lack of suitable space and partly because certain elephants should not be released: dangerous bulls, likely crop raiders, etc. Thus, it falls on those who manage the 15 000 elephants in captivity to be both at once very pragmatic and very sensitive. Most of us in this room have or once had power over elephants so there is no need to explain to you the difficult choices, even soul searching, required when you meddle with the lives of these magnificent animals.

I was expected to give an overview talk, a factual overview of each country, summarizing the country reports. Unfortunately, many country reports arrived very late, and I have not had time enough to analyse them. Therefore, I will cover this subject only slightly in this keynote address. In any case, a press release covers the big picture, and the country reports - which will in many cases be further edited and improved - have the full details. Besides, you all know the big picture already. The usual story is that numbers are going down and conditions are worse than they were five years ago. The problems are the same: lack of employment, depleted forests, the loss of traditional knowledge, the increasing number of incompetent mahouts, lack of funds, the problems of tourism-related work, etc.

This talk is going to have a more personal tone than is usual for such meetings because what I am going to talk about has long been of great concern to me. As far as I know, I have written the only material about the need for registration of Asian elephants in Asia, first in an article called"Need for an international registry of domesticated elephants” in Gajah in 1992 (although the paper was actually written for an AESG meeting four years earlier in 1988); also much was written about registration in Gone astray, and let that serve as the detailed objective argument. This talk is also personal simply because the subjectivity which that tone allows will enable us to cover the ground much faster, to deal with the big picture.

I came to south India in 1978 to observe wild elephants, my only interest at the time, but in the back of my mind I presupposed limitless elephants in maharajahs' palaces and traditional logging camps far off in the forest. There is great irony in the fact that I now think it is incumbent on us to put a number on each and every domesticated elephant - and those elephants are clearly not limitless.

The subjects of this workshop are registration, law and networking. Or put another way: registration, registration, and registration. Registration enables all else; without registration, it is very difficult to make a good job of law enforcement, veterinary care, population research, economic studies, or any sort of macro-management at national or state level. Proper registration means that each animal has a unique number, usually with an implanted microchip but sometimes some other mark, plus full contact information and biodata to a very high standard. Further, that information and biodata should be in a form that is both easy to access and easy to use.

In Asia there are some elephants already registered or at least documented to meet a very high standard, particularly forestry department elephants in India and Myanma Timber Enterprise elephants in Myanmar; but nowhere in Asia are the standards of easy use and access met. And even in India and Myanmar there are thousands of elephants documented to a very poor standard or not at all.

If one accepts that elephants are in trouble and need better management and care, and if one further accepts that we only have an unclear picture of what we are managing, it then follows that all Asian countries with elephants need an integrated form and database to track and monitor that country's elephants. If the need for better data is universal, then why reinvent the wheel? As the information required is the same throughout the region, why not use the same form and the same database?

I am not an expert in any single one of the demanding scientific disciplines needed to create a registration procedure: population dynamics, statistics, computer programming, etc. But perhaps it is my lack of specialization that enables me to see not just the need - after all, every specialist sees the need for the data he wants - but rather to see the actual possibility of registering a very large number of Asia's domesticated elephants in a very short period of time.

We will explore registration later, including a country-by-country analysis, but first let us make a short excursion into the realms of law and networking.


Law is fundamental, but without registration many aspects of law enforcement and humane management are impossible; the most important law, therefore, is to simply require registration on penalty of fine or confiscation. In virtually every country in the home range, but most particularly in CITES signatories, it can be safely said that law is problematic and contradictory. Much of the confusion and awkwardness arises because in most countries Elephas maximus is classified either as a wild animal (and an endangered one at that) or as a domesticated animal. Ethically and intellectually, I believe that elephants are wild animals. Practically, however, I believe they are usually better cared for when managed as domesticated animals, if only because livestock departments have far more of the resources elephants need - veterinarians, laboratories, highway checkpoints, etc. - than do forest departments. In fact, however, it is best if all government agencies - forest department, livestock department, law enforcement, etc. and even NGOs - join together, each doing what they do best.

A model law would be a good foundation. Creating a new law needs a bottom-up approach, at least in the initial stages. Whether talking about welfare or conservation, elephants need a special law that is built on their actual physical needs, not a law that works down from a theory. All of the people in this room are ‘elephant people', and it is better that we elephant folk systematically think through all the rules needed to ensure or at least maximize humane treatment to the elephants - and only then to call in the lawyers needed to codify those rules. Any special law should provide elephants with all of the standard benefits guaranteed to domesticated animals, plus whatever special protection can be gained by virtue of their status as wild animals.

Most mahouts and many owners have a village mentality and, while often wary of government officials, they are often happy, even flattered, to deal with NGOs, academics, even foreigners. Still, getting villagers to register their elephants requires a carrot and stick approach, but with as much carrot and as little stick as possible. The stick is of course the threat of fines and penalties, perhaps even confiscation, for not registering. The carrot is usually veterinary care.


Networking is important because there are many people and institutions in need, but there are also many people and institutions ready to offer help. The very least that could and should be done is a switchboard or clearing house that helps to connect people. Much of this support, both in terms of funds and knowledge, will flow from the West to the East but particularly for knowledge there is much the East has to teach the West. Nonetheless, the need for networking is so evident and self-explanatory that I will not discuss it further here.

Domesticated elephants and wild elephant conservation

Dr Michael Stuewe will talk in greater length about the role of domesticated elephants in wild elephant conservation, so I will keep my remarks brief. In Gone astray I listed ten ways in which well-managed domesticated populations help to conserve wild elephants. Indeed, from one perspective they are one and the same population: if you capture a wild elephant and put it in chains, it is then domesticated; if you release into an appropriate place a preconditioned domesticated elephant - and most in Asia are already pre-adapted - it will very likely become a wild elephant.

From another, more conventional perspective, however, the two populations are quite distinct. Pretty much everywhere fewer and fewer wild elephants are being captured (except for Indonesia and a few other places); and no matter how imminently ‘releasable' domesticated elephants might be, unfortunately there are very few suitable places into which they might be released. From this gloomier perspective, the wildlife conservation value of domesticated elephants is perhaps not very significant, thereby by default leaving the arena to animal welfare. With every passing year, I must admit, I feel less of a conservationist and more like an animal welfarist. I want to help individual animals. But I do want to help them in a realistic way, which means being objective and scientific.

But whatever the case, good data derived from proper registration is needed to assess the value of domesticated elephants in wildlife conservation.

The need

Why is there a need for a unique number? In law enforcement, such a number is needed to prevent abuse, to foil theft (a boon to the owner), but more importantly to stop illegal trade across international borders, which is rife; for example, without a sure means of identification it is easy to smuggle calves out of Myanmar (where calves are useless and cheap) to Thailand (where they are costly and in great demand). In veterinary care, there is no need to explain the need. I have been getting all sorts of information from the United States and Europe about tuberculosis (TB). If TB were to be found here in Asia, registration would be essential for long term treatment. In Thailand recently the very first case of trypanosomes was found - in a test tube with no name or number on it. In Thailand, where some elephants are treated by more than one NGO, registration could prevent an elephant getting double doses of Ivermec.

In management and population analysis, registration is needed to simply gather the required data; in Thailand (and Sri Lanka) I would suspect that full data would show that the population has a very high median age compared with a typical wild population. I think that in many parts of Thailand, if not all, a surprise result would be a fairly high birth rate, the reason being that with many cows not doing logging, and with the demand for calves in tourism, more owners are breeding their cows, cows that are in better condition than when they were logging. To test this conjecture, however, one would have to separate legally bred calves from illegally smuggled calves - another argument for registration.


Microchips are of course the most obvious and probably the best way to mark elephants. While microchips are costly, they are not prohibitively so, and I do not believe funding would be a problem. Because of the cost, however, microchip readers will always be few and far between, and it would thus be highly desirable - perhaps even essential - to have an external mark, irremovable and ineffaceable, that without any special equipment can easily be read by any livestock department official, police officer, park ranger, etc. This external number might be a lip tattoo, but is mostly likely to be an ear tag, a possibility which should be explored and would probably be quite easy - if not for the elephant's trunk and its uncanny ability to get things loose.

The registration form

The ideal registration form - let us call it ‘the basic form' - would obviously include all relevant biodata and contact information. The ideal basic form would be no longer than two pages and would be designed to be filled out as simply and as efficiently as possible. The basic form would be provided to each range state country, but with the addition of the national language to English and with perhaps some small additions to deal with issues unique to that country.

The first page of the basic form should include a ‘short form' with a much sparser data field than the basic form. The short form is used on occasions where there simply is not enough time to deal with many elephants, such as religious processions or festivals, or when it is difficult to elicit full information from mahouts or owners. Elephants found in the short form are obviously to be followed up later.

The basic form should have some optional secondary forms with the potential to add new forms at any point. A veterinary report form is the most obvious secondary form, as are other forms with detailed physical data (nutrition, genetics, blood, hormones, etc.). Other forms might deal with employment history or economics. The veterinary form might well be developed simultaneously with the basic form, but most of the others could be developed by - and funded by - specialists.

A very short handbook would be needed on how to correctly gather and enter data into the form and then how to subsequently access and use the database. That handbook could be printed in national or even regional languages as well.

The basic form must include provision for the owner to protect his privacy, particularly when registered by a non-government entity, so as to build trust with the owners. Owners should be given the choice of not passing the information on to the government or the general public. Owners could be given the choice of full disclosure or of disclosing all biodata, but no names or contact information.

The database

Dr Andrew Teare will talk about databases and more technical issues. I looked at both ISIS and the North American Studbook. It seems to me that, primarily because of a lack of data fields, neither would serve in Asia. My impression is that both were started at a time when computer memory was very scant - or perhaps it is just that both of those databases are simply large enough to serve the need. But while not preposterous in its demands, the new database will need much more information. There must be an existing database, probably for human or animal health care, that would, by adding some data fields, do the job. An animal database (several people have suggested ARKS) might be good if it contained provision for genealogy. On the other hand, a database for humans would be more complete, having space for addresses, phone numbers, names, etc.

My final awareness is that I do not know even enough for intelligent speculation. The bottom line is that there probably will be no need to write the software from scratch. And even if the software needed to be written in its entirety, it would be a simple enough task that could be done in any university.

Likely possibilities for registration country-by-country

Sri Lanka has probably about 200 elephants. While the Department of Wildlife Conservation registration is incomplete, I believe several researchers and NGOs have covered pretty much all the island; the Sri Lanka delegation will update this, I am sure. It seems to me that registering all of these animals could be done in a year or two.

India has always been very blurry as to numbers, but it seems that virtually all elephants are known to officials or able to be tracked down, missing only a few in the Northeast. The problem with India is that domesticated elephants fall under the supervision of different states and this means dealing with at least 11 agencies. If Project Elephant and the central government coordinated the work of the states, and if the states could involve forest departments, livestock departments, universities, etc., then registering nearly all of India's elephants should be fairly easy. Of course, some elephants will be out of their home state - but that is one of the purposes of registration, isn't it? To be able to track elephants and even to control their movements. So, India should not be hard so long as people are motivated.

Nepal and Bangladesh have very small populations, which are already well documented and could be perfectly documented in short order.

Myanmar is perhaps half extremely easy and half pretty difficult. The elephants of the Myanma Timber Enterprise (MTE) are superbly documented, both in each animals' register book ‘Form J' and also in data from the Smithsonian project, about which we will hear more. For those elephants, international registration probably consists of no more than transferring data from one database to another. Myanmar's privately owned elephants will be more difficult. Some private elephants do contract work for the MTE, and registering those would be easy; most other private elephants probably get their veterinary care from forest department vets so there is at least one likely avenue to conducting a concerted effort with private elephants.

Thailand has all of the resources to do full registration of its approximately 2 500 elephants. The question is who is going to do it? The Local Administration Department of the Ministry of Interior would ideally be the agency given that they have the legal mandate and have registered elephants for 70 years, although collecting only sparse data; I am anxious to hear their views on the possibility of introducing a new form. Further, numerous NGOs have microchipped elephants and keep their own records. With a good physical infrastructure, many officials and NGOs, Thailand could very quickly register all of its domesticated elephants. The problem will be to coordinate all the various players.

In the Lao People's Democratic Republic, the Department of Livestock and Veterinary Services keeps pretty good data on most of the country's roughly 1 200 domesticated elephants. With some support it should be easy to document perhaps 80-90 percent of the elephants within a year or so. It should be noted that registration could play a very useful conservation and welfare function by controlling illegal international trade between Thailand and Laos. Calves and perhaps docile cows are certainly being brought into Thailand for tourism and it is sure that some good Thai logging elephants are going to Laos. (The Thai-Myanmar border has the same problem.)

Cambodia is a very real problem. So little is known, and infrastructure is so poor, as to make it very difficult to register elephants. Of course the lack of information makes it all the more important to identify and register the surviving elephants. The Department of Animal Health and Production, probably in association with the forestry department, would definitely need help.

Viet Nam's elephants have to be very easy to register because there are so very few elephants, and because the mahouts are all tribal and thus of interest to anthropologists. The Forest Protection Department takes a strong interest in these elephants.

Malaysia has to be very easy because there are so few elephants and they are all government-owned and cared for by the Department of Wildlife and National Park's Elephant Management Unit.

Indonesia should make for easy registration. All of the elephants are in government hands, the Directorate of Forest Protection and Nature (PHPA) (essentially the forest department), or those of a few largely highly responsible private owners. Various international conservation organizations are very active on the island of Sumatra: Fauna and Flora International, World Wildlife Fund-US, Wildlife Conservation Society, the European Union, Global Environmental Facility, and others.

The chances of success

Registering 15 000 elephants (and their future offspring) in 11 countries to a universal standard sounds daunting. Some people have told me that it is impossible, but I think not for several reasons. First, in the year 2001 nearly every elephant in Asia is very near a road so we are not talking about launching major expeditions. Second, in many countries there are existing data that could be transferred to the database, probably by completing the short form and at least partly filling some of the basic form. Third, the registration package would make it easier for people to do their own work. The real obstacle is really a lack of tools, not a lack of manpower or technical skills. Computer literacy is universal in Asia and in any case the core database should be extremely easy to use. There are plenty of people who regularly go into the field with government agencies and NGOs as part of their daily work.

All the above presupposes that the agencies and organizations involved are genuinely motivated to do the job. In the simplest case, that of motivated people with basic resources, you simply send them the software and the means to print the basic form and then await the data. Some partners might lack suitable computers and need to be given equipment. In critical situations or where partners require some inducement, there may be a need for money for per diems, fuel, etc. Obviously, the more money spent, the faster the work would go; if you bought four-wheel drive vehicles and paid local staff, the work would go very quickly indeed. But there is clearly no need for such extravagance. In any case, I do not think that finding funds will be a big problem. Through my work at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, I get a voluminous amount of unsolicited email from people I do not know, sometimes lay people, sometimes experts, sometime institutions, and there is no doubt that there is great interest in helping. Many are interested in a particular country, which should help funding. And the fact that registration is not only needed for conservation but also has great usefulness in animal welfare efforts will make funding easier.


I would like to go on record as saying that I think it perfectly possible to register at very least 70 to 80 percent of Asia's domesticated elephants in three years, one year for the development of tools and two years in the field. Yes, it will be hard work, but the first two steps - devising a form and selecting or creating a database - are both relatively simple, straightforward and inexpensive. I hope we finish this workshop with a firm commitment to seriously explore the possibilities of going at least this far. I think many people and many institutions would be happy to help - not that all that many resources are required.

Devising the form and the database are bound to create interest in actually implementing registration. Sending the software over the net costs nothing. Paying to print the basic form with the addition of the national language and then distributing it costs little. I would think that perhaps 90 percent of Asia's domesticated elephants live and work within an hour's drive of an Internet cafe. These elephants have been ravaged by the harsher side of modern technology; let us give them the benefit of some protection and help from the information side of that technology.

The registration form and database are tools; they are not an end unto themselves. The purpose is to give all Asian elephants a history so that they can be individually traced. In various countries in Asia, elephants are being captured under dubious circumstances and being sent to unsuitable sites in-country or even sent to other Asian countries under even more dubious circumstances, often resulting in horror stories that never become known to the international conservation or animal rights community. Without proper registration, it is impossible to protect elephants from such abuse.

The Mahout Training School of the Forest Industry Organization at Lampang

Dr T. Satoo, President of the Japan Wildlife Research Center at the Mahout Training School, Lampang

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