Slave, Partner, Pest or God: What do we see in Asian elephants?

In a well-known Buddhist parable, a group of blind men are introduced to an elephant. Each man touches one part of the elephant’s body, getting acquainted with the trunk, leg or tail, but none of them gains an understanding of the animal as a whole.   

In the same way, examining a single facet of elephant nature reveals little. They are fascinatingly complex animals and our relationship to them is accordingly convoluted. The trainability, strength and majesty of Asian elephants in particular has attracted us for at least 4,000 years and our interactions have taken on an astonishing array of forms.

We’ve come up with a myriad of ways to harness the mammoth mammals’ physical assets. Reaching heights of three metres and weighing up to 5000kg, these elephants were no doubt formidable when countering Alexander the Great in battle in 326BC. Outside of the military they have transported people and goods over tough terrain, logged forests, built roads, and ploughed fields. And strength isn’t their only marketable feature: Charisma has made them profitable street beggars, circus performers and tourist attractions.

Asian elephants are also important cultural icons across South Asia. They have appeared on past national flags of Thailand and Laos, served as symbols for political parties and bear religious significance for Hindus and Buddhists.      

It’s clear that Asian elephants will continue to be admired and revered as they have always been. What’s less certain is how these giants will fit into an era of shrinking habitat, shifting economies and changing cultural attitudes.

These three snapshots reveal transformations the human-elephant relationship is currently undergoing and offer clues on where it might be headed.

Laid-off Loggers

Photo by Suriya99 / Shutterstock
Photo by Suriya99 / Shutterstock

Previously thousands of captive elephants were used to remove logs from Southeast Asian jungles that machines couldn’t penetrate. Although the work was strenuous, elephants were protected by strict labour laws. Skilled handlers known as mahouts or oozies benefitted from employment in the industry. But widespread deforestation was the result, and this led governments to curb the timber trade. Now in Myanmar and Thailand, elephant—and mahout—unemployment is a real problem.

Some former loggers are getting second careers in tourism. Attractions range from ventures where elephants and handlers are treated poorly to conservation-minded organisations striving to serve people and pachyderms’ best interests. Tourists may experience the ellies relaxing, giving rides, or even playing polo.

Another approach is to set the elephants free. The Elephant Reintroduction Foundation has released over 100 formerly-captive elephants into managed forest reserves in Thailand since 2002. However this requires vast expanses of jungle where they won’t come into conflict with humans. Considering habitat loss is their biggest conservation threat, there might not be enough room for all to return to the wild. And what about the livelihoods and traditions of the mahouts?

Performers to Pensioners

After 145 years as a staple act, elephants performed at a Ringling Bros. circus for the last time in May of this year. The final cohort of 11 individuals has retired to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida, where they will live out the rest of their days away from the limelight.

The circus decided to pull the elephants in response to several cities outlawing the use of the ankus, a hook-like tool staff used to manage the elephants. Public pressure was a factor, with activists contending that circus staff had abused the animals with the ankus and in other ways.

The 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation opened in 1995 and serves as a breeding facility and home for retired elephants. While they won’t have to do tricks there, critics are concerned the retirees could be too confined and bored to live happily.

Conflict and Conservation

While the challenges above apply to captive elephants—roughly one third of the species’ population— their wild counterparts have problems of their own. The species is endangered, occupying only about 5-6% of its historical range.  

Asian elephants inhabit some of Earth’s most densely-populated areas. The human population is increasing by 1-3% across their range while forest habitat is shrinking and fragmenting. This leads to more frequent conflict between elephants and humans, sometimes fatal. It also isolates herds from each other, decreasing genetic diversity and negatively impacting breeding and survival.

Fortunately many conservation initiatives are underway. Organisations such as WWF, NCF and WCS are working with governments and locals to protect habitat, reduce interspecies conflict and clamp down on poaching and illegal trade. Innovative strategies to prevent human-elephant conflict include using TV and bulk-SMS alert systems to warn Indian villagers about the herds’ whereabouts and employing trained captive elephants to guide wild ones away from Indonesian communities.

Seeing a Way Forward

Photo by Kagai19927 / Shutterstock
Photo by Kagai19927 / Shutterstock

The fate of Asian elephants, both captive and wild, rests in human hands. So far, although we marvel at them and benefit from their efforts, our treatment of their kind has frequently been abusive, exploitative and violent. But we’re getting a clearer picture of these intelligent, emotional animals and our relationship to them, and our concern for their welfare is growing. Perhaps this improved vision will help us resolve the complex economic, cultural and social issues surrounding our interactions in a way that allows both our species to coexist and thrive.

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