Changing Planet

Life for Captive Elephants

More than half of Thailand’s elephants are in captivity. Once used for transportation, religious festivals, and war stemming back to 2000 BCE, adult elephants today work in illegal logging and tourism camps, while calves simply wander the city streets.

Most of Thailand’s working elephants are considered private property. As the only source of revenue for their owners, they are often overworked, underfed, and maltreated. Living in isolation from their herds, lacking the freedom to roam, and at the mercy of their owners, some die decades earlier than their wild counterparts. From war elephants to circus elephants, thousands of elephants around the world face a similar fate.

I spoke with Carol Buckley, who co-founded a 2,700 acre natural-habitat elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, as well as rescued eight circus elephants. She recently founded Elephant Aid International which has taken her to Asia in an effort to improve the living conditions of elephants in captivity.

Why do you prefer to work with elephants in captivity?

It is the journey I found myself taking. I met a baby elephant and my life helping elephants progressed from there. I volunteered my time to take care of and train her. A year and a half later, I purchased her to be able to raise her in a way I felt was better for her welfare.

How would a captive elephant’s demeanor differ from a wild elephant’s?

They are the same animal, in captivity and the wild. The difference is in their responses to experiences. Many captive elephants have been systematically brutalized by humans and, as a result, are shells of themselves. They are like prisoners of war, knowing that their day-to-day existence relies on their captors.

Could it ever be a good idea to keep elephants in captivity to protect them from poachers

It is unethical to keep any animal in captivity unless their needs are met, and it is impossible to meet the needs of elephants in captivity. They suffer in unsuitable environments. It is a death sentence for them. Bringing them into captivity only exposes them to a slower, more painful death.

A young elephant taking a dust bath as adult looks on. NGS stock photo (undated) by William Albert Allard.
A young elephant taking a dust bath as adult looks on. NGS stock photo (undated) by William Albert Allard.

What are the common problems captive elephants face in Asia?

Some are kept in chains continually, with their front legs hobbled together. They provide tourist rides with ill designed saddles which cause sores that fester and abscess for weeks at a time. They are hit over the head with heavy sticks, iron pipes, and hatchets, and stabbed with knives and the pointed end of an ankus, a spiked stick used for goading, to inflict pain.

How about in zoos and circuses?

In modern zoos, some elephants suffer from lack of exercise, autonomy, family, and live vegetation. They stand on unnaturally hard surfaces for many hours each day, some in chains. Some are managed with bull hooks designed to inflict pain in order for trainers to control them. Some circus elephants endure travel in semis and railroad cars, chained for hours each day. They stand and sleep in their own waste, and are forced to perform unnatural tricks. They are physically beaten as a means to force them to perform. Many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

What are their biggest health concerns?

Bone infection, arthritis, colic, and herpes—herpes deaths among captive elephants in the U.S. is epidemic. Records also indicate that a high percentage of captive elephants in the U.S. have been exposed to and/or suffer from tuberculosis. Humans spread tuberculosis to elephants much the same way it is transmitted from human to human, by sneezing or coughing.

What are the best and worst facilities you have seen?

The worst are facilities that chain the elephant and use them for tourist rides. I cannot say I have seen a facility that could be called the best. In order to qualify as best a facility would need to meet the needs of the species: provide hundreds of thousands of acres, be home to at least one herd of related elephants, and have species-specific climate and vegetation.

Should elephants be bred in captivity, or should this be phased out? 

I believe elephants should only be bred in range countries and only if a reintroduction plan is in place. But the success of some reintroduction plans is not verified. For instance, two rescue and reintroduction projects, one in India, the other in Thailand, claim success but information suggests that several released elephants have died at both projects.

Carol Buckley embracing Asian elephant, Tarra. Carol Buckley photo (2004)
Carol Buckley embracing Asian elephant, Tarra. Carol Buckley photo (2004) by Robin Conover.

To what extent is keeping elephants in captivity “insurance” for the survival of the species?

It is no insurance for their survival. In fact, exhibiting elephants in zoos has done nothing for the conservation of the species. Keeping them in zoos only serves to preserve the individual for exhibition purposes.

How can the average person help?

Don’t ride elephants or buy ivory. Learn about elephants, their depth of emotion, commitment to family, intelligence, gentleness, and sense of humor. Teach your friends and family about these highly intelligent, incredibly social, intensely sensitive, migratory animals.

What has been your most memorable moment with an elephant so far?

Each elephant has touched me in a profound way. Each experience has been unique and powerful. Their wisdom, ability to forgive past injustices and willingness to trust again—even after the most horrific experiences—is memorable.

Sasha writes for National Geographic. Her articles have also appeared in national and international publications including The Atlantic, The Washington Post Magazine, The American Scholar, and The Jerusalem Post. Follow her on twitter @SashaIngber.
  • Steph R

    It is true, there is a lot of abuse and mid management towards elephants in Thailand. But, on my last visit to Thailand I made a visit to the “Elephant nature park” in northern Thailand, just outside of Chiang Mai and those elephants have a great place to live. They have all been rescued from abusive owners and are now treated with great compassion and respect. They get fed multiple times a day, taken to the river for a bath, and are allowed to mingle with each other, or stay within their particular herd. These elephants seem so happy and healthy.

    I just wanted to make this comment because its not all bad in Thailand. Lek, the owner, has dedicated years to creating this sanctuary, so I wanted to make people aware of it. It’s a great place to visit either for a day trip, or to volunteer for a few days while visiting Thailand.

  • Vivien Moorhouse

    Steph R – It sounds like the Elephants that you have seen are being looked after – And Ime so glad about that. – But sadly most of these poor Animals in captivity are not treated with kindness & compassion. – They need to be in a safe place where they are amongst their own kind in freedom.

  • Nina Phillips

    Absolutely true what you say about Lek, Steph R… She’s a mover & shaker in Thailand! Teaching the people how to take better care of their native elephant populations. Too bad the country of Thailand is still one of the largest buyers of ivory, not to mention having hundreds if not thousands of carving factories 🙁

  • Cindy Wines

    We need to share Carol’s research and teaching the mahouts of India to share the wonderful experiences with the abusive, wicked people of Thailand. The tradition pha jaan (where they almost kill the baby elephants in breaking their spirits) must be made illegal. Carol and her India mahouts must each the Thailand people that the elephants respond better to positive reinforcement rather than beating and brutality.


    You can tell that Carol Buckley lovesand respects and knows alot about elephants. She is so right that captivity should never be the way of life for an elephant . There are some wonderful sanctuaries in Thailand but unfortunately there are too many elephants living a horrible. I so agree that tourists should never ride elephants or participate in the street begging of the people who force baby elephants to stand and beg for food and money. They are treated horribly and it doesn’t help them to give money to these people .

  • ann s. williams

    carol has done so much for eles in america and is broadening her horizons to include nepal . there is much to do as she explained . i really think programs to help educate mahouts should be on the to do list. these mahouts have followed centuries of ele training which has not been in the best interest of the elephant. i think they are doing mahout training and education at the enp(elephant nature park) in thailand . these programs should include training and education all over the far east, india and sumatra and beyond.. it might help the plight of the ele to live a life of some sort of dignity rather than abuse and isolation. dont ride eles, dont buy ivory, dont peddle gifts with eles, give them respite and care when at the temples, dont let them stand on concrete all day and out law using eles in begging. carol, lek and others are working hard to give a different perspective on elephants and how we are all related to the universe.

  • Brunila De souza

    One solution to the miserable state of the Thailand elephant is to train the elephant animal keepers to treat the animal kindly. Another way is to build more elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. These animal keepers are from the lower strata of society, they do not know love and compassion. They must be taught how to treat the elephant.May Lord Shiva guide the effortless work of the Foundations in Thailand that help save these woncerful animal. May the wicked, corrupt of Thailand be punished and may the elephant be freed.

  • Elizabeth Winstanley

    The plight of these wonderful, endearing animals must be explained to children at the smallest age. They must learn to appreciate the elephant’s need for life in its own environment, and not in zoos or circuses.
    How can we help those who must use elephants for their livelihood?

  • Shannon R

    Steph R

    My daughter is there right now at the elephant nature park or sanctuary in Thailand and she says the same thing. She is volunteering there and speaks very highly of the way he elephants are treated and loved where she is.

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