Unemployment spells misery and falling numbers for Asian elephants

Asian elephants have been captured, tamed and worked by people for more than 4 000 years. The biggest wild animal tamed by humankind, the elephant holds a special place in the public imagination as a gentle giant - obedient and intelligent. Historically, most domesticated elephants have been employed in transportation, both of people and goods. Despite their bulk, elephants are far more adept in mountainous terrain than horses and they also move easily through mud and marshes that will defeat any other animal.

Doubleclick on the picture to see the elephants working

But a new FAO publication says that today, nearly everywhere in South and Southeast Asia, the domesticated elephant is in deep, but unrecognized crisis. Numbers have fallen from hundreds of thousands down to only 16 000 elephants in 11 countries, and they continue to plummet. "Gone astray: the care and management of the Asian elephant in domesticity" is written by Richard C. Lair, who has lived with and studied domesticated elephants for 20 years.

Deforestation leaves elephants homeless and jobless

The root cause of the elephants' plight is progress. Rapid development has brought massive deforestation. This destroys both the habitat for wild and captured elephants - and the employment opportunities for elephant owners, since logging has become the main occupation for today's working elephants.

Unfortunately, "rather than a peaceful retirement, in those Asian countries which are developing rapidly the elephant's loss of usefulness ... has brought both falling numbers and badly deteriorating keeping conditions", according to the book.

Traditional elephant owners are increasingly unwilling to keep elephants from which they can no longer make a living. Elephants may be bought as status symbols by rich people with no real use for them, or understanding of how they should be cared for, or they may be moved into the tourist industry.

Lack of quality mahouts leads to deaths of elephants and men

The most frightening threat to elephants is a rapid decline in the quality of the mahouts - the men who train them, control them and care for them. Large numbers of tribal keepers have left the profession and the sons of many mahouts are choosing other kinds of work.

Inexperienced mahouts are a danger to themselves and their elephants

Twenty years are needed to train a master mahout. But increasingly, being a mahout has become the job of very young men with no prior experience. This lack of experience has caused the deaths of many men and ultimately many elephants, shot because there is no available mahout with sufficient skills to control them.

Thailand's foremost elephant veterinarian, Dr Preecha Phongkum, believes that about 200 mahouts are killed annually in his country alone, with only about 50 deaths being reported to the authorities.

In Myanmar elephants live like in the old days

The book profiles the situation of elephants in domesticity in 11 Asian countries, and in the West. Only in Myanmar do elephants live mostly like the old days with plentiful forests to provide both food and work. A host of traditional keepers, most of them tribal people, maintain large numbers of elephants in the old ways. The downside of the situation is that Myanmar's elephants are worked very hard, although the Myanmar Timber Enterprise, owner of half the country's 6 000 elephants, has begun to implement some modern conservation measures.

Indonesia is in an odd and absolutely unique situation. Starting in the late 1950s, the government resettled millions of poor slash-and-burn farmers in Sumatra. The human population explosion forced wild elephants out of their shrinking forest home to raid crops and, occasionally, to kill humans. Estimates of the numbers of wild elephants soared from less than 300 to 4 000.

Finally the government felt obliged to capture some elephants. The problem was that Indonesia had lost its elephant-keeping tradition perhaps 80 years earlier and did not have a single mahout. In 1986, Indonesia's forest department imported two elephants and four mahouts from Thailand to help. By 1996 over 600 wild elephants had been captured and another 900 are expected by the year 2001. Almost all elephants are owned and supported by government and very few do any paying work.

In Thailand, numbers of domesticated elephants are presently in a steady, inexorable decline. In 1994, according to national statistics, Thailand held about 3 565 domesticated elephants, considerably down from the 5 232 listed in 1980.

At the turn of the century, perhaps 90 percent of Thailand was covered by canopy forest. Now the country has less than 15 percent natural forest and most of the valuable timber trees have been logged. Since a 1990 ban on logging, the only timber work available is skidding illegally cut logs, a brutal job said by one expert to employ between 1 000 and 1 500 elephants. Illegal logging has forced many conscientious traditional owners to sell their elephants, many of whom have fallen into the hands of unscrupulous 'businessmen' with no love of elephants. Accidents are rife, and there are well-documented cases of elephants being fed amphetamines to make them work harder. (Go to The plight of domesticated elephants in Thailand)

"Gone Astray" discusses the obvious first steps towards conservation: improved law, fuller and more detailed registration, and preventive veterinary care for as many elephants as possible. Lair stresses that "The greatest barrier to effective care and conservation is the abysmal state of knowledge, so the initial goal must be to energetically gather information so as to reveal the extent and true nature of the crisis".

Copies of "Gone Astray" can be obtained by faxing Mr M. Kashio at (66-2) 280-0445 or by writing to him at the FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Maliwan Mansion, 39 Phra Atit Road, Bangkok 12000, Thailand. The author, Mr Richard Lair can be contacted by telephone (66-2) 251-7640 or by email at [email protected]

30 December 1998

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