Historically captive Asian elephants were used for logging, war and building. These days machinery has taken over that role, so why are there still over 15,000 Asian elephants in captivity?
The main reason is purely for our entertainment; zoos, circuses, safari rides, photograph opportunities and rides at resorts.
These elephants do not breed well in captivity so many babies are still taken from the wild. This is having a significant impact on already struggling wild populations. In addition the process of capturing and taming a wild elephant is brutal. It is estimated that for every wild baby elephant raised in captivity, 5 wild ones will have died in the process of capture and 2 will die in the process of taming.
There is no such thing as a domesticated elephant
Although elephants have been worked in captivity by humans for over 4000 years, they are not in fact domesticated, as for example dogs or cats are. Domestication is a process that involves selective breeding over generations whereby the species is gradually changed to display traits more suitable for life around humans; a process that has never occurred with elephants. Captive elephants are simply that; captured, captive, tamed. As a result nearly all working Asian elephants will have endured a process of “breaking” in order to make them responsive to humans and compliant to the demands placed upon them.
Just how do you “break” a 7 foot, 3 ton animal? Violently. The horrifying reality is that baby elephants are taken from their mothers extremely young, caged, starved, sleep deprived, dehydrated, beaten, tied up and isolated for weeks on end. Quite literally this brutal ritual is intended to break the spirit of the elephant calf. Through this process the baby elephant learns that it must obey human commands in order to have its basic needs met.
Once this torturous process is over the calf has learnt to be compliant and dependent on humans. The painful consequences associated with disobeying are reinforced throughout the elephants life by the repeated use of tools such as the bullhook.
Elephants are highly intelligent, sensitive, sociable creatures with very good memories. For this reason the process of breaking has long lasting and deep psychological effects on them; they suffer throughout their lives from the stress and trauma of being separated from their mother, often seeing their family be killed and their early brutal treatment.
A life in chains
Captive elephants are usually kept chained up in such a way that their movement is severely restricted. They are often unable to access shade and water, and will stand for long periods in their own waste. As a result they often suffer from infected feet, arthritis and many show signs of psychological trauma such as head bobbing and repetitive swaying.
Many captive elephants are overworked, have little or no access to veterinary treatment, some are even given amphetamines to suppress their appetite and recently deaths have been reported from exhaustion.
These highly social animals also suffer from stress, boredom and lack of companionship as they are often chained in isolation.