How domesticated elephants can help their wild relations

It is not only Asia's domesticated elephant population that is in crisis. The wild population in many countries is "severely threatened by habitat destruction, poaching and fragmentation into small, isolated groups",according to Richard C. Lair's new book, "Gone Astray: the care and management of the Asian elephant in domesticity".

Calves born in captivity can be released to bolster wild numbers

Poachers hunt bull elephants for their tusks. And elephants in Thailand, for example, have just begun to be killed in response to crop raiding. Reports from the Thai border with Myanmar strongly suggest that sometimes cow elephants are shot solely so that the hunters might capture and sell their calves. Lair argues that the troubled domestic populations could help save Asia's wild elephants.

The Asian elephant has never been selectively bred. Unlike what happened with cattle or horses, for example, people have never systematically chosen elephants to mate to create an ideal temperament or physical type. As a result, the domesticated elephant remains genetically a true wild animal. Also, because most elephants are taken out at night to feed and rest in nature, held only by a tethering chain, perhaps two out of three are preconditioned to the wild and would survive if released. It is as if there were thousands of tigers or Sumatran rhinos or any other endangered species kept by villagers in anticipation of release, a resource unique in wildlife conservation.

The book lists the ways that domesticated elephants could benefit their wild relatives:

  • Domesticated elephant populations are the final refuge for wild elephants that can no longer survive in nature, for whatever reason.
  • Elephants born in captivity can be released into the wild
    • to bolster numbers or right sexual imbalance in wild populations,
    • to reintroduce elephants in areas where they have disappeared,
    • to 'insert' outside genes into small, isolated wild groups faced with inbreeding.
  • Domesticated elephants can be trained to control wild elephants, to relocate them or capture and train them for wildlife management purposes.
  • Employing domesticated elephants in selected logging operations can eliminate the need to build roads, and thus protects the environment of wild elephants and other species.
  • Large numbers of calves born in captivity mean that it should no longer be necessary to capture elephants for commercial purposes.
  • Domesticated elephants can be used for research that directly benefits the conservation of wild elephants.
  • Domesticated elephants already play a valuable part in education and "public relations" on behalf of their wild cousins. This could be expanded with careful planning.

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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