The Burdens of a Beast

Unlike people in Africa, who kept their distance from elephants except to hunt them, people in Asia have lived closely with elephants since at least 2000 B.C. All levels of society developed cultures of working with and caring for these creatures. Mahouts—the men who handle, train, and look after the elephants—have a long history in Asia. A mahout's skills came from an intimate bond with the elephant and were passed down from father to son over generations.

A mahout in Thailand leads his charge.AMNH
Domesticated—Yet Still Wild

Unlike horses, dogs, or cattle, domesticated Asian elephants are have never been bred selectively by humans. All domesticated elephants—most of which have been either captured from forests or sired by wild parents—remain genetically and behaviorally wild. Nevertheless, many quickly form bonds of friendship, affection, and trust with their keepers. Richard Lair, Thai elephant expert and author of Gone Astray: The Care and Management of the Asian Elephant in Domesticity, says "I've seen elephants baby-sit one- and two-year-old children. The child tries to get away, and the old mother elephant reaches its trunk out and pulls the baby back under her feet, which is the safest place in the world. This is really quite unusual and quite astounding." A factor underlying this bond may well be elephants' well-documented curiosity of people.

Asian people, in turn, have long treasured and venerated elephants as noble champions, brave hunting companions, and loyal friends. From Mesopotamia through India, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, and as far east as China, elephants have figured prominently in history, art, literature, and religion. Elephants appear at every level of the Hindu pantheon, where benevolent, elephant-headed Ganesh, the god of learning and success, is one of the most beloved Indian deities. The animal's size, wisdom, and value on tiger hunts earned it a prominent role in Buddhist belief and imagery. An elephant is said to have fathered Sakyamuni, the last known reincarnation of the Buddha, which entered his mother's lap in the form of a white elephant.

A Useful Beast

In the past century, about 100,000 elephants were captured in Asia. Perhaps a few million were captured since the species was first domesticated some 4,000 years ago. Over the millennia, these elephants have been put to many uses:

• As weapons: Elephants were one of the four ancient Indian army units (the others being cavalry, chariots, and infantry). War elephants were trained to respond to a variety of commands. They could charge in formation, cross fences and pits, knock down barricades, and trample men and horses. Young nobles were expected to master the art of combat mounted on an elephant. War elephants served under the command of Roman emperors, Mongol lords, and Indian rajas until the introduction of gunpowder put an end to their usefulness. Even then, the British used them in Burma through World War II to build bridges, launch ships, and haul munitions.

• In royal duels: Battles between princes and rajas often began with a duel between two armored elephants. The mahouts were usually at greater risk than the animals.

• As executioners: Sometimes an elephant—preferably a sacred white one—was trained to crush the head of a condemned man beneath its foot. This practice continued until the late 19th century.

• As vehicles: Elephants were the royal mount for Indian rajas from 400 B.C. until the mid-20th century. For many centuries, they carried important people on hunting expeditions in wooden enclosures called howdahs. Now they are increasingly used to carry tourists shooting cameras instead of guns. Elephants can penetrate deep in the jungle, and they remain the only reliable mode of transport in certain parts of India when the Ganges floods during the monsoon.

antique figurine of elephant in its traditional role as logger
This antique teak elephant figurine from Thailand shows one of the animal's traditional jobs: logger.AMNH

• As loggers: Before chain saws and bulldozers, elephants were used to knock down trees. The economic potential of Asian elephants was fully exploited for the first time during colonial rule, when they were put to work in large-scale logging efforts. They helped fell and drag massive trees, some weighing up to four tons, to rivers and, later, to trucks and boats. Thousands of elephants are still used by illegal logging operations in Thailand and elsewhere, but these unfortunate animals are overworked and abused.

• As pack animals: Transporting goods over long distances and rough terrain has always employed far more animals than the logging industry. Although the advent of railways and motor vehicles took away much of their work, elephants remain irreplaceable in roadless regions, especially during the rainy season, in Myanmar, northeast India, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Probably the only draft animal equally at home on steep hillsides and in muddy swampland, elephants are astonishingly sure-footed.

• As plows: Elephants are used to plow rice paddies and coconut plantations, and to pull water carts.

• In religious ceremonies: Elephants play an important part in the countless religious processions and ceremonies that punctuate village life in Asia. The animal may stand while a mother holds her baby under its belly to endow the child with intelligence and strength. Or it may carry sacred relics in a stately march to the temple. Unruffled by frenzied crowds and loud music, elephants seem to understand, and perhaps even enjoy, their ceremonial roles.

New Uses for Asian Elephants

Today, the Asian elephant is endangered, so domesticated populations can now serve an even more valuable purpose: aiding in the conservation of their own species. For wild elephants that have run out of natural habitat, domesticity may provide a last refuge. Domesticated elephants are valuable for research and public education, and they are essential in training their wild cousins for wildlife management purposes. Most importantly, because they remain genetically wild, they are excellent candidates for reintroduction.

A crowded, changing world has evicted the Asian elephant from most of its habitat and reduced its economic importance. Mahouts are no longer regarded with the respect they were accorded for centuries. As their status has declined, so has the care and treatment of their enormous charges. Yet the revered status of the elephant and the custom of coexistence remain deeply rooted in Asian culture. This tradition—along with the sense that the elephant has given much to man, and that it's time to give back—is fueling a multinational conservation movement.