Threats to captive elephants
Shift in culture
With the need for captive or 'domestic' elephants for logging becoming obsolete, the occupation of mahout (elephant handler), the specialised knowledge, and the time-honoured relationship between man and animal is dying out. Children have little interest in learning the trade.
The skill level of elephant-keeping and the ability to control male elephants (bulls), is rapidly declining.
The biggest problem facing captive elephants is unemployment. The situation is perhaps most dire in Thailand, where a ban on commercial logging in 1989 put several thousand elephants and their mahouts out of work.
An elephant eats about 200 kilograms of food a day, so unless you're a very wealthy person who keeps expensive pets, or your elephant is working for you and generating income, it's not easy to keep an elephant in captivity.
Whilst one person can watch a whole herd of cattle or sheep, each elephant needs at least person to look after it. But with the decline in skilled mahouts, many elephants are now handled by inexperienced people who are just in it for the money.
This leads to elephants being at best are poorly cared for and at worst severely abused. Mahouts are increasingly harmed by elephants as well.
Caring for privately owned elephants often turns out to be the job of an impoverished mahout, or nobody's job at all.
Elephants are now competing for fewer jobs at lower pay, which can force mahouts to overwork them. Some owners have even started selling their elephants to be slaughtered for meat.
Having said this, there still exists some incredible mahouts with a lifetime of knowledge and experience. Learn about mahoutship.
Lack of protection
Although well protected from international trade, Asian elephants have little protection under domestic laws.
Generally, national wildlife agencies in Asia consider the captive elephant to be a domestic animal, giving them the same legal rights as a cow or a goat, whilst livestock departments consider elephants to be wild and not under their jurisdiction. In Thailand, captive elephants fall under the Draught Animal Act 1939.
In 2016, Thailand announced it would introduce a DNA Registration System which requires every captive elephant to be registered by the age of three months; this discourages illegal trading in the tourist industry and is an important step towards safeguarding wild elephants.
The tourism industry
Tourism is a huge market in Thailand and is often the only viable solution for captive elephants.
Tourists can ride or bathe elephants, watch them in parades or perform at zoos, circuses and even venues that claim to be 'ethical'.
Not all elephants are temperamentally suited for working in tourism, particularly large male elephants, who can be unpredictable, aggressive and even lethal to tourists and locals.
Elephants who are used for riding, bathing and performing tricks often suffer from lack of social contact with other elephants, poor diet, injury or mental anguish.
Begging the streets
Elephants can be found with their destitute mahouts begging for money in the streets of large cities like Bangkok. They can suffer from respiratory infections, sometimes damage property, and can get hit by cars.
Begging is illegal in Bangkok, so during the day elephants are kept in the back alleys away from the public eye, left to feed on trash. They come out at night when they won't be seen by officials and their mahout prosecuted.