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.

Changing Planet

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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.