Asian Elephants in Captivity

Asian elephants in captivity have been witnessed effortlessly lifting, throwing, trampling and killing humans. Of the thousands of mahouts (local elephant keepers) that work with elephants and millions of tourists that interact with elephants each year, the number of injuries and fatalities are relatively low.  In attempt to understand their strength, an Asian elephant’s trunk alone has more than 40,000 muscles; the human body has about 640. A trunk can hold 10 litres of water and can lift over 700 lbs. Mahouts realize the extreme danger revolving around working with elephants, yet when in captivity elephants come off to the unaware eye as docile and ‘happy’ (due to the natural upward curve of their mouth). Most tourists don’t consider the danger of being on or near a wild animal of immense size and incomparable strength, heightened by the emotional trauma each one has endured having been removed from their complex lives in their natural habitat. It takes a heavy hand to dominate and train elephants to be controllable and predictable enough for the mass influx of tourists to have safe experiences.The infallible method of training that wild elephants must endure is called, the phaajan, or, in English, ‘the crush’.

How has tourism gotten to this point?
In Thailand there are currently about 4,000 elephants in captivity.  According to estimates compiled by numerous conservation organizations, both the wild population of Asian elephants and their habitat in Thailand have declined by about 95% in the past century; the wild Asian elephant population declining from about 100,000 wild elephants to about 1,000. Deforestation is mainly due to overpopulation, constructions of roads and unsustainable agricultural practices – specifically palm oil and rubber plantations, corn and rice (Thailand’s biggest export).

The massive boom in tourism occurred only within the past couple of decades. In 1989 the use of elephants for the logging industry was banned and thousands of captive elephants were on the streets, unable to return to their diminishing wild habitat.  This created the tourism industry – where captive, trained elephants became profitable by performing and providing rides.

The Ivory Trade is a factor affecting the Asian elephant population as well. There are many loopholes in the regulations attempting to control the import and export of ivory along with a severe lack of enforcement. In comparison to the approximate 30,000 African elephants that are poached for their tusks each year, the major controlling factor of the wild and captive elephants populations in SE Asia is the market driven force of the tourism and labor industries.

The crush is the traditional method that has been utilized to tame wild elephants from centuries ago. Aptly named, it is required to gain complete dominance – to crush their spirit so there is no chance that they disobey a mahout.  At around two or three years of age they are violently separated from their mother and roped in an area of space no bigger than their bodies. They’re deprived from food, water and sleep for the duration of their training, which lasts as long as it takes; anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Confusion, fear and pain are imposed on them until they become submissive. Negative reinforcement is the only proven method that ensures an obedient elephant; they shout, beat, burn and stab them until they begin to obey commands. This practice is defended as their “traditional way” and any objection or interference is dismissed and condemned as cultural insensitivity.

In the Wild
Understanding the complexities of elephants’ lives in the wild helps us gain insight into the inadequacy of their living situations in captivity, and the behavioural implications when their needs in the wild are not met in captivity. We know that they are highly migratory, amongst the most socially developed, intelligent and sensitive species that we are aware of on the planet. Their auditory and olfactory senses fall above and below the ranges in which humans are able to perceive.  They communicate and feel vibrations beyond five kilometres away, with tones that fall both in an out of our sensory capacity.  In the wild they forage up to 18 hours a day and have a self-medicating diet, encompassing a wide variety of nutrients, which the matriarch is known to lead them to. Their herds are tightly knit groups within well-defined social hierarchies. They nurture their young and protect them and each other with tenacity. All captive individuals have been removed from their complex social, intellectual and physical needs in the wild, or born in captivity creating a slew of other detriments.

MRI scans show that structures in the elephant brain are strikingly similar to the human brain (Ingfei Chen, Smithsonian Magazine). When assessing the intelligence of other species, scientists gauge the makeup of the brain, the ratio of the brain to body size and the growth rate of the brain from infancy to adulthood. Other tests are assess self-recognition/awareness and cooperation, which elephants pass. The elephant has the largest brain of any terrestrial animal, and although whales have larger brains, their bodies are also much more massive. The elephant brain shows an abundance of the specialized neurons known as spindle cells, cells only founds in big brains (’ brains are the closest to humans in the amount they grow through their lifetime, meaning their intellect is learned, rather than instinctual. Lastly, the hippocampus – the region of the brain known to process memory and emotions through the limbic system – in the elephant brain is larger and more complex than any other species, including humans (Charles Siebert, National Geographic). It can be surmised that any amount of suffering that has been known to man is felt deeper than we can fathom in an elephant. Elephants have been witnessed grieving in many ways and return to bones of deceased family members long after flesh is gone (Dr. Joyce Pool, elephant biologist).

There are severe implications for these animals when their wild needs are not met in captivity. A physical manifestation that occurs with the confinement of animals is termed, “stereotypy”. It is an unvarying, repetitive behaviour: swaying side to side, rocking back and forth, trunk tossing and pacing, known to arise when natural behaviors cannot be carried out in captivity, along with the suppression of mental, social and physical stimulation.

Deprivation of these needs results in psychological and behavioural issues.  Like us, and many other species, elephants require a crucial period of nurturing when young. When the orphans have had a traumatizing experience they often act out in destructive ways, for example, forming gangs and going on destructive rampages: Between 1992 and 1997, after witnessing the shooting of their families, young male elephants in South Africa killed more than 40 rhinoceroses. The behavior stopped when adult bulls were integrated into the young herd (‘Orphan Elephants’ Charles Siebert, National Geographic). I have witnessed the behaviour of an elephant after her calf’s body was brutally taken from her – she repetitively bashed her head into a cement pole and screamed for hours. “Their emotions are exactly the same as ours. They’ve lost their families, have seen their mothers slaughtered, and they come here (to the orphanage) filled with aggression—devastated, broken, and grieving. They suffer from nightmares and sleeplessness.”(Daphne Sheldrick, David Sheldrick Trust).  Allan Schore, an expert on human trauma disorders at UCLA, notes thatthe behavior of these traumatized elephants conforms to a diagnosis of PTSD in humans: “A large body of research shows that the neurobiological mechanisms of attachment are found in many mammals, including humans and elephants,” he explains.(Orphan Elephants, National Geographic).

Tourist Camps
Captive elephants are viewed as private, profitable and dispensable property, partially due to the local mentalities that have developed from the longevity of elephant handling in this region and the categorization of elephants as livestock by the government. When the logging ban took place in 1989, there was a massive decrease in the demand for captive elephants, which simultaneously diminished their value. As tourism increased, foreigners created demands –to help street beggars with elephants or to interact with, ride or watch them perform. These demands become increasingly more anthropomorphized and infantilized when it comes to performances; elephants are dressed up in human attire, trained to kick balls, dance, paint, ride tricycles, walk tight ropes and do headstands, among other belittling displays.  Fascination and affection for cute baby elephants has led to inflation in price and the smuggling of calves in from neighboring countries, prematurely and violently separated from their mothers and protective herds.

Mahouts are socially marginalized. A once respected job for local people is now considered lowly.  The declining quality of mahouts breeds a lack of experience and interest within the job role. Often, a lack of attachment and commitment accompanies this, resulting in mahouts with insufficient skills, rougher methods of control and the inability to notice health and behavioural issues.

In captivity an animal on the red list of endangered species suddenly falls under the Draft Animal Act, made in 1939, classing them as domesticated livestock, the same as mules, buffalo, horses, pigs, cattle, etc. Domestication is an inappropriate term, referring to selective breeding carried out by humans for more than 12 generations by choosing the biggest, strongest and most desirable physical traits so that they evolve and adapt successfully in terms of size, fur, temperament, etc., to suit our needs (WSPA Thailand).  Despite thousands of years of human interaction with elephants they have always been extracted from the wild and they have never been bred to accommodate human needs.

Captive breeding is carried out at the owner’s discretion. It remains unregulated, and lacks adequate and appropriate management and intentions – which is often the money-driven exploitation of calves. As the WSPA in Thailand informed, “Successful captive breeding programs require huge resources and a high amount of scientific research and expertise…should only be undertaken as a last resort in conjunction with efforts to protect the species in the wild”. Even though captive breeding is carried out indiscriminately, there has been no occurrence of more than second or third generations

In captivity they are bulk fed, often once a day, with little to no variety of food and generally fed the cheapest of options; corn and sugar cane, which cause intestinal problems, bloating (giving off the impression that they are well fed) and toxicity from pesticides. They are restrained by chains, and when away from these restraints, the bullhook is used – a tool used by mahouts designed to hook in the elephant’s inner ear and stab them. Even though pachyderm means “thick-skinned”, the area of skin in and around their ears and anus is paper-thin. Their shelter is often unnatural – made of cement causing severe foot diseases, and sunlight and/or shade is dependent on the thoughtfulness of the camp owner. Even if they are kept in close proximity to others, social interaction is not something that is taken into consideration.

The inadequacy of the shelter, feeding and treatment within a camp varies depending on how much care and money the owner and mahouts invest. The overwhelming outcome results in overworked, abused individuals living in highly stressful conditions and a dramatic decrease in their lifespan. Still, there are hundreds of tourist camps in Thailand, some naturally having more success than others: a tourist camp may have enough money to give off the impression that it is not a bad place for elephants to be. Even with lush surroundings and healthy looking elephants, they have still been taken out of the wild, away from their families and have gone through the brutal training process, forced to live an unnatural life, solely for our entertainment. Only few tourist camps out of the hundreds in the country have enough funds to have medical facilities on site. The one tourist camp known for its impeccable conditions, The Thai Elephant Conservation Center, which is government funded and hold the king’s elephants, is a tourist camp with enough money to have a vet clinic on site. This is where I witnessed and recorded some of the most brutal treatment seen by Asian elephant experts.

Theoretically, riding an elephant may seem like a better option as opposed to watching them perform, but trekking elephants are working elephants. They’ve all been through the brutal methods of training and the same inadequacy of living conditions occur here as where they perform. Safety and obedience are the owners’ first priority to attract the masses of tourists, which is attained by the aforementioned training methods. Inadequate breaks, number of treks per day plus the amount of weight they carry (which should not exceed more than 440lbs, a day) are factors that are rarely considered, due to the fact that it is culturally and socially ingrained in the locals that they are handling domesticated livestock. It is not uncommon to see old, “retired” elephants with deep scars and damages spines from the saddle and relentless years of weight they’re forced to carry.

In this perilous time with the demand of endangered species in entertainment becoming insatiable, sustainable solutions need to work for both humans and wildlife. Furthermore, with diminishing habitats elephants cannot be returned to the wild. Mentalities revolving around captive elephants must shift. Most sanctuaries for abused, injured and overworked elephants pay lump sums of money to rescue individuals in need. This way is neither sustainable nor does it create alternative ways of generating income for elephant owners, who have no reason to spend the newly acquired money differently. Buying old, overworked and injured elephants without working to create alternate livelihoods perpetuates the problem as well as the detachment in the owner-elephant relationships. Promoting awareness and knowledge about the complex intellectual, social and behavioural needs and capabilities of elephants is needed, perhaps then a shift will take place with SE Asian youth and may spark the necessary rethinking of “tradition”. Compassion and empathy must be cultivated. It is widely accepted that apes, cetaceans, elephants and humans are among the most intelligent species. Once we are fully aware of this scientific information, we need to ask ourselves why we are okay with contributing to an industry that exploits a highly intelligent, emotional, social species, solely for our entertainment.

Nadia Khan
Assistant Manager; Elephant Orphanage Project, Zambia

Former roles:
Staff; Lek Chailert’s elephant/wildlife sanctuary in Cambodia
Project Manager; Elephant-Forest Reintroduction Project, Thailand
Guide; Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Fundraiser; Medecins Sans Frontieres, Australia
Fundraiser; Colobus Trust, Kenya
Volunteer: Whale Shark, Great White Shark and African wildlife conservation efforts