Culture & community


The past

The history of the working elephant can be traced back to around 2000 BC in northwest India. Since then, elephants have been used as beasts of burden across India and Southeast Asia – to haul logs, carry crops and people, to entertain, play polo, and even in battle – carrying soldiers and arms into combat, where they would trample enemies. Alexander the Great was confronted by some 85 elephants when he reached the Indian border in 326 BC, and Hannibal famously crossed the Alps with 45 elephants in 218 BC, sealing their depiction as symbols of war and power. Their strength was unparalleled in an age before machinery, and in more recent times their use in the logging industry has actually been a less damaging way of removing timber from the thick forests; unlike with trucks, the forest does not need to be flattened to build access roads as the elephants can drag logs between the trees.
It is not just their enormous size and strength that made them such valuable working animals; the elephant’s incredible intelligence means they can be taught to obey complex commands and build strong relationships with their owners. They are revered throughout the region; Ganesha is the elephant-headed Hindu deity, and elephants play vital roles in temples and ceremonies. In Thailand, the elephant – particularly the “white elephant” – is linked to the monarchy. Sadly, their high status is no indicator of their treatment; there are no laws in place regarding the welfare of captive elephants in Asia.

The present

India: In India, particularly in the south, the majority of captive elephants live in temples, where they are believed to bring good fortune. This luck does not extend to the temple elephants, however, who are usually kept on short chains to limit their movements, unable to escape the midday sun or interact with other elephants. They also perform in processions and ceremonies, which can be stressful and physically harmful – all in the name of religion.*
Thailand: Having been used for war, and then for heavy labour, the Asian elephant’s role is changing again. In 1989, Thailand implemented a complete ban on all commercial logging – which resulted in hundreds of unemployed elephants – and unemployed mahouts. Elephants consume up to 200kg of vegetation in a day, and are not cheap to look after; they needed to work to pay for their own upkeep. As the logging ban coincided with the growth of tourism to Thailand, they began to be used to give rides to tourists, as well as being trained to display their old logging and carrying skills in shows, to dance to music and to paint. This is the situation we find there today.
Africa: Africa has virtually no tradition of keeping elephants in captivity, due to the difficulties of capturing and training them. The exception was a small working group in the Belgian Congo from the 19th century, and a now-extinct, smaller subspecies of North African elephants may also have been tamed thousands of years ago. However, following demand from the tourist industry, there is a growing demand for captive African elephants and tourists can ride them, particularly in South African “sanctuaries” and to Victoria Falls, in Zimbabwe.

The future?

“Some of the resistance to change comes from the Thai people who feel we’re telling them their culture is wrong and their history is wrong – which, understandably, upsets them. But in Thailand, because the use of elephants has changed twice already – from war machines to logging to tourist rides – I think it can change again.”
– Dave Tucker, from our supplier The Beyond Tourism Co.

"One of the things that urgently needs to change is our perception of Asian elephants. They’re often associated with captivity, and many people don’t realise that they’re an endangered species. There is a huge focus on Africa and the ivory trade, which there needs to be, but in many ways the Asian elephant is a lot worse off. It’s being hammered from all sides: massive habitat loss, poisonings, electrocution, poaching, demand from tourism - the list goes on."
– Jo Cary-Elwes, Elephant Family

In April 2014, Burma also put an end to commercial logging – releasing a further 5,000 elephants from torturous labour*. It also leaves them without work; some will be set free, leaving them at the mercy of hunters. Others will be smuggled into Thailand, where wild elephants are protected, to work in the tourism industry. In all likelihood, Burma will go on to develop unregulated elephant tourism of its own. This puts extra pressure on the fledgling tourist industry to reduce the demand for this type of tourism.

Elephant glossary


  • Howdah. Photo by Jean-Pierre DalbéraMahout: The owner, rider and carer of an elephant. Traditionally, the mahout would be given a “broken in” elephant when still a boy, and the two will develop a strong bond, with the mahout able to perfectly control the elephant with words and through the use of implements such as the bull hook. Being a mahout is often a family tradition, going back generations.
  • Howdah: A seat or carriage carried on the elephant’s back. Today, these are usually used to carry tourists, but traditionally they were used by hunters, or warriors entering into battle. The howdah significantly increases the weight carried by the elephant, and is believed to damage the elephant’s spine and internal organs, as well as causing sores. Additionally, as the howdah is time-consuming to remove and put on, the elephant will likely be left carrying it all day, even when not giving rides.
  • Takaw/ankusa/bull hook: This is a long tool used by the mahout to control the elephant when working or riding. The metal hook on the end is used to stab the elephant’s skin – gently or more aggressively – as well as to sensitive areas like the inner ear or mouth.
  • Musth/must: This is a period during which bull elephants become extremely aggressive and dangerous. Testosterone levels can be 60 times higher than usual, but the cause or purpose of musth is not fully understood. A bull in musth can be identified by the characteristic secretions on the side of its face. Elephants in musth have killed people, wildlife and even other family members, meaning that they must be either chained for days or kept in extremely secure enclosures, adding to the complication of keeping bull elephants.
  • Phajaan: Almost all captive elephants have been “broken in” in some way. One ceremonial type of breaking in process is called phajaan, which translates as “crushing the spirit”. Young elephants are caged and tied up for several days, and hit, burned or stabbed until they are “broken” and able to be sold into work,
  • Pachyderm: Often used to refer to elephants, rhinos and hippos, which were all once classified as pachydermata.

Photo credits: [Logging elephants: Will Ellis] [Temple elephant: Flying cloud] [Painted elephant: McKay Savage] [Howdah: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra]
Written by Vicki Brown
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