Help for captive elephants in Asia

28. July 2018


Elephants in Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka. Photo credit: Mairbird / shutterstock

Asian elephants are far more likely to become extinct than their African cousins. Having been tamed in Asia for thousands of years, their numbers in the wild are down to about 30,000, compared to just under 400,000 wild African elephants.

Elephants are of immense cultural importance to most Asian countries and have been used for more than 8,000 years as “war machines”, for transport, logging, religion, status symbols,  performing  and for  capturing and taming wild elephants. Due to losing their traditional occupations, more captive elephants have to work in the ever increasing tourist trade. It is therefore not surprising that there are still 15,000 captive elephants in Asia (compared to 700 in Africa) trying to make a living for themselves and their mahouts. By tourist trade I do not necessarily mean eco-tourism, which is characterized by observing free elephants in the wild. In Asia, the tourist trade with captive elephants is committed to on-going exploitation of elephants for rides, performances of silly acrobatics, elephant polo, painting  and other unnatural activities. Mahouts often use cruel traditional methods for taming and controlling their charges, and owners simply want to optimize the elephant’s profit potential without understanding their needs or caring for their well-being.

Most of these captives cannot be re-integrated into the wild, as wild fauna requires wild flora, which is ever shrinking due to increasing population density, inadequate protection for wild elephants and the inherent difficulties in finding employment for mahouts, whose special skills are no longer be needed.

Pitiful looking elephant in leg chains. Photo credit: Christopher P.B. / shutterstock

The idea that captive elephants maybe useful for conservation of the species is seriously flawed. Aside from ethical considerations, conservation in captivity only conserves what looks like an elephant. Real elephants can only survive freely in their natural habitat, where they can exercise their true social, emotional and physical nature. Elephants are born with 35 % of their adult brains, closest to humans, born with 29 %. Our closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees, are born with 59 % of their adult brains. Elephants and humans therefore have the largest capacity to learn by growing  the cerebrum and cerebellum part of the brain,  where awareness and memory is located.

In other words, elephants need their mothers within a social context to teach them how to become adults, a condition extremely difficult to replicate in most captive environments. Conservation of Asian elephants therefore needs to concentrate on preserving enough natural habitat for elephants to lead their natural lives in safety.

But what are we to do about 15,000 captive elephants in Asia? First and foremost we shouldn’t add to their numbers by capturing and taming more wild elephants or by supporting captive breeding programs. Rather it appears essential to naturally reduce their numbers while making serious efforts to change their traditional captive lives of fear, cruelty and pain.

Carol Buckley, Founder, President & CEO of Elephant Aid International (EAI), specialized in trauma recovery and on-going physical care of captive elephants is the visionary to tackle these problems elephant by elephant. For an overview of Carol’s mission, please see the following video:

To complement the educational efforts of Elephant Aid International and to give circus elephants a retirement home, Carol Buckley has also founded a new sanctuary, Elephant Refuge North America (ERNA ) in Altapulgus, GA. Supporting mahouts and their elephants, the sanctuary will also serve as training site for mahouts. Here they will learn to work with elephants based on positive re-inforcement, and chain-free rapport. Back home in Asia, they will become ambassadors to other mahouts for a humane approach to working with elephants.


Main website for Carol Buckley Projects :                                                                                             

Books by Carol Buckley:

Traveling with Tarra  July, 2002

Just for Elephants  November, 2006

Tarra & Bella  September 2009