Why Asian captive elephants cannot roam free

In the wake of recent controversies concerning Thailand's elephant population, we try to unpick the issue of whether captive elephants can be returned to the forest.

By | Tue 13 Aug 2019

There has been much debate on the recent news story by Citylife, which reported on a group of elephant activists and owners coming together in a press conference to call out an article by the New Zealand Herald for misinforming the public with unsourced journalism.

Citylife is no expert in the matter of captive Asian elephants, though we have spent two decades talking to experts in the fields, vets, scientists and owners, and we rely on their expertise for our position. After exhaustive research we have settled on taking our cue from the Asian Captive Elephant Working Group (ACEWG), a working group of volunteers from around the world who are setting standards and dispelling myths concerning captive Asian elephants. This is a non-profit group, not in any way affiliated to any interest and their experts are highly regarded on an international level in their fields.

“Currently, there are approximately 13,000 Asian elephants in captivity. Of course, the ideal situation for an elephant is in the wild, but this is unfortunately NOT a realistic option,” was a statement at the opening of a film released by the Asian Captive Elephant Working Group (ACEWG), a group of volunteer experts from around the world looking to set standards and disseminate correct information about the welfare of captive Asian elephants.

The captivity of Asian elephants is a controversial topic. It is a matter of great interest to people across the globe, many of whom have not been exposed to the complexities of the issue. “A lot of tourists believe that every elephant is tortured, believe that even the good camps cannot be good. The idea that every elephant is abused, is, somehow, easy to portray in black and white,” said John Roberts of Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort.

So why not let them roam free?

First of all, there is simply not enough appropriate habitat available. According to Dr. Taweepoke Angkawanish, less than 15% of the elephant’s natural habitat remains in Thailand. Basically, if we would let all captive elephants loose, they would have nowhere to go.

Even if some land were available, the process to reintroduce the captive elephant into the wild is complex. Even if elephants are seen to roam wild in private sanctuaries or parks, they still have to come into contact with humans, often to make sure they remain in the confines of the area, for veterinary and health purposes and for feed. Each interaction poses great risk to humans and this is where traditional methods to control elephants used by mahouts have been both necessary and fiercely criticised. However, there has been much progress in recent years by groups such as ACEWG to train mahouts to use tools judiciously for their own protection and for the welfare of elephants, a standard which some business owners do not adopt as they fear negative optics. This has led to multiple deaths of mahouts. Other businesses have adopted them and elephants are not harmed while mahouts remain safe. This is the preferred method.

Asia has had a history of domesticating elephants for millennia. They took part in building cities, warfare and transportation. Many elephants are born captive and a return to the wild is no simple matter. Not only that, it can often do more harm than good to the elephant, as groups have dynamics which are different from one another and some elephants simply don’t coexist well in herds. Then there is the high potential of human-elephant conflicts such as running over a village in a hunt for food, for example.
“Many people don’t understand that the elephant tourism industry came about because we already had elephants in captivity. They’ve been in captivity for a very long time and can’t just be released so we have to find a way to feed them,” said Roberts. Housing elephants has cost, and tourism is the only legal form of work for elephants and their owner to earn some income.

Much criticism has come about from the unnatural activities elephants are made to perform in some elephant camps, such as standing on two legs, playing football and painting, leading to questions of how they are tamed into doing such ridiculous activities, with much blame being put at the metal hook traditionally used by mahouts. “Primarily, the hook is just to extend reach. The mahout would be standing on the elephant’s side, put the hook over the top of the ear, give a gentle touch, couple it with a voice command,” explained Richard Lair, world renowned Asian elephant specialist. It’s similar to a bit and bridle for horses. Most elephants are born into captivity and are familiarised with humans from birth, so it no longer requires the cruel breaking practices often used in the past for wild elephants, as the captive elephants are easily trained and do not require the use of force.

The chain is another visible symbol of captivity. But it is a necessary tool. “Of course, it matters how you chain them, and how long you chain them. But to say ‘don’t chain an elephant’, unfortunately that’s unrealistic,” said Carmen Rademaker, founder of Naka Elephant Foundation. It is the simplest and safest tools for a camp that cannot afford millions of baht in fencing. Unlike fencing, it also allows elephants to move locations throughout the jungle from patch to patch so that they can forage. Chains are also the best materials for control as they do not cause chafing on elephant skins. It would be impossible to keep an elephant in captivity without chaining, or fencing, if for at least a few hours per night.

“I think there’s no perfect way to keep an elephant in captivity. Even dogmatically saying every elephant should be without chains, free roaming is not necessarily good for every elephant. Because not every elephant can be in a sanctuary with another elephant – an aggressive elephant who doesn’t like to be with other elephant, is not suitable for those sort of things,” said Roberts.

There are of course some mahouts who lack understanding in building a proper relationship with the elephant and would abuse the tools he has. These are often underpaid untrained mahouts, rather than those who have often had generations of mahouts in their families before them. Then there are camps which force their elephants to allow rides or work for tourists for long hours. According to the group, riding elephants – sans howdah – is not necessarily bad for them, as long as the time is limited to a couple of hours a day, afterall many elephants thrive on activity. That is why the group has written out a set of standards as to how captive elephants must be treated and need to get the word out so that the industry can move forward with proper understanding, judging by scientific facts not emotion, do your research.

It’s difficult to evaluate what is a good camp and what is a bad for the elephant. And that is what the Asian Captive Elephant Working Group are trying to fix. “ We need to educate tourist to support good elephant camp [for] the better management and better live condition of the elephant,” said Dr. Chatchote Thitaram, Director of Centre of Excellence in Elephant Research and Education.

Please see the Question and Answers section of the website for clarity on many issues.
A full video is available at ACEWG.org (hyperlink) covering pretty much most of the frequently asked questions with explanation from scientist and experts whose entire career are built upon working with the Asian elephant, not profiting from them.

Related Article: 

Living with Elephants: dispelling myths, setting standards and changing attitudes