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Elephant carrying tourists
Tourism is one of the most common uses of captive elephants. These tourists are visiting the government-owned elephant camp of Dubare in the state of Karnataka, India.

Elephants in Bardia, Nepal
Handling and management practices have left some visible signs in this elephant. The missing parts of the ear have been torn during punishment with an ankus (bull hook; the instrument the mahout is holding in the upper photo on this page). The chain around the forelegs, keeps the legs closer together than in a natural standing position, risking chronic problems in the joints. Lack of excercise and foot care can lead to overgrown nails (seen especially in her left front foot), which can result in splits and inflammation.

Mahout punishing elephant
A tourist-carrying elephant is hesitating to lay down on command and is getting punished for it. In this case, the elephant showed symptoms of chronic ankle pain, which may have been the reason for the difficulty of her movements. Owners and mahouts, including this one, are not usually aware of such problems, as there is insufficient specialist veterinary screening available.
Elephants at work and in society

There are approximately 15,000 elephants in captivity. More than 90 % live in South and South East Asia. Elephants are used for a variety of purposes, such as in tourism, logging, temples, festivals, circuses and zoos.

The main countries and uses of elephants

The largest numbers of captive elephants are in Myanmar, India and Thailand. Myanmar has approximately 5,000 captive elephants, most of them in logging. In India, there are approximately 3,500 elephants in a variety of uses, such as festivals and temples. Thailand's approximately 2,300 captive elephants are mainly in tourism.

Tourism is also one of the most common uses overall: there is elephant tourism in all countries that use elephants for other types of work.

Other uses include patrolling of conservation areas (for example in Nepal, India and Sri Lanka), chasing wild elephants away from villages and fields (for example in India and Indonesia) and begging with street beggars (especially in Thailand).

In some African countries, elephants are used for carrying tourists on safaris. This first started in Botswana a few decades ago. Such elephantback safaris now exist in several African countries, such as Zambia and South Africa.

Zoos and circuses have elephants in approximately one hundred countries around the world.

How are elephants kept?

In most Asian elephant facilities, elephants are kept chained while not under the direct control of the mahout (handler). Some have a chain on one leg only, allowing them to take a few steps. Others are immobilized by chaining two legs: either one front and one back leg, or hobbling the front feet as in the photo above left. The chaining practices most detrimental to health are those in which the elephant has to stand in a position it would not naturally use. This results in abnormal weight distribution, risking the development of painful chronic problems in joints.

Another challenge for many captive elephants is excess heat. Elephants need to be in shade, or preferably water, during hot weather. Keeping an elephant under midday sun causes a rise in body temperature and intensive discomfort.

Most owners and mahouts are unaware of these problems. The reason for them is not indifference or cruelty of owners and mahouts, but insufficient availability of information.

How are elephants trained and handled?

Nearly all captive elephants of today are trained and handled according to a methodology described in Indian scriptures several thousands of years ago. It involves a period of "breaking the will", usually carried out for some weeks or months as a calf. It involves intensive physical punishment and injury with sharp weapons. After this, command words are introduced by punishing the calf while repeating a word, until the calf finds out which movement it is expected to do. In addition to causing injury and long-term mental trauma in the elephant, the process is also risky to the trainers, who sometimes get injured when a calf panics. Occasionally calves die from training injuries.

The reason why such a system is still in use is not willingness to be cruel. Some of the people involved do find this procedure deeply troubling (although it also is normal human nature to become numb over time to the pain one inflicts on others). The reason for its continued use is lack of knowledge on other ways to train animals. An additional factor is the common belief that elephants fully understand human language and know which type of work people expect them to do. When a calf does not understand a new word and therefore does not do what it is told, this is interpreted as deliberate challenging of the trainer's authority, to which the trainer reacts by punishing.

Once a calf is trained, handling at work for the next decades partly depends on the personality of the mahout. There is wide variety among mahouts: some are gentle, while others believe the elephant has to be constantly afraid of the mahout in order to work. It is common for mahouts to be taught that the elephant will kill them if they do not maintain sufficient fear by inflicting pain often enough. Actually, this adds to the problem: many of the reported cases in which an elephant has killed the mahout, have occurred while the mahout has been beating the elephant.

Pain is also utilized for other purposes, for example when a male elephant enters the part of the reproductive cycle called musth, and mahouts want it to be over soon. Intensive stress shortens the duration of musth, therefore, some mahouts subject the elephant to repeated beatings until the musth is over.

Copyright © Elephant Experts 2014-2016
Photo copyright © Elephant Experts and the photographers:
Minna Tallberg, Helena Telkänranta, Marc Pierard, Karpagam Chelliah,
Nirvay Sah, Sudhir Yadav and Ramesh Belagere