Elephas Maximus vs Homo Sapien

The history of the world is replete with names of illustrious members of the Asian Elephant or Elephas Maximus family such as -

  • Kandula, the trusted companion and battle mount of King Dutugamunu, the 2 nd century BC ruler of Sri Lanka.
  • Mahmud, the lead elephant in the army of an intruder determined to destroy the Kaaba, who halted at the border of Mecca and refused to enter.
  • Hanno, the beloved white Indian elephant of Pope Leo X presented to him by the Portuguese king, Manuel I, in 1514.
  • Suleiman, born in captivity in the royal stables of Bhuvanekabahu VII of Kotte (ancient capital of Sri Lanka), and brought to Lisbon in the entourage of the Kotte Ambassador, Sri Ramaraska Pandita, in 1542.
  • Lin Wang (‘forest king’) the lone survivor of a group of Burmese elephants used to build roads and fortifications during WWII who was donated to the Taipei City Zoo in 1954 and made a posthumous citizen of Taipei after his death in 2003 at the age of 86. Lin Wang was the longest living elephant in history.
  • Raja, one of the most celebrated elephants in Asia during his lifetime, who was declared a National Treasure in 1986 by Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene in recognition of his services to the religion and culture of Sri Lanka.
  • Arjun, who marches at the head of the Mysore Dasara procession carrying the idol of the Goddess Chamundeshwari on a golden howdah. He was preceded by Balaram and, before that, Drona.
  • Raja Gaj (‘king elephant’) the massive bull elephant who was the main attraction at the Bardiya National Park in Nepal. DNA testing was done to find out whether he was a regular Asian Elephant or a throwback to some extinct species of mammoths and mastodons. The test proved he was the former.

Thousands of Asian Elephants have played integral roles in mythical as well as historical wars since the Indus Valley civilization. Now, the descendents of these magnificent creatures, both captive and wild, are facing possible extinction. One of the main issues on the agenda of the Eastern Himalayan Naturenomics Forum held under the aegis of the Balipara Foundation in Guwahati on 8 & 9 November 2016 was ‘Captive Elephants: Past, Present and Future’.

Experts such as Dr Khyne U Mar (Myanmar), John Roberts (Thailand), Susan K. Minota (USA) and Dr K.K. Sarma (Assam) joined hands with conservationists like Ruth Powys (UK), Julie Stein and Lisa Mills (USA) and forest officials from Assam, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Bhutan, to discuss the threats to the existence of the Asian Elephant whose habitat in the eastern Himalayas extends from northeast India to the eastern border of Nepal in northern West Bengal, through western Assam along the Himalaya foothills, extending into eastern Arunachal Pradesh, the plains of upper Assam, and the foothills of Nagaland, then on to the areas of Nepal and Bhutan that border India. Of the total 49,700 Asian Elephants still in existence, around 27,000 are in India; one- third being working elephants in captivity.

Lisa Mills, EOL & Julie Stein, Wildlife Friendly Enterprise at the Captive Breeding session at EHNF.

Lisa Mills, EOL & Julie Stein, Wildlife Friendly Enterprise at the Captive Breeding session at EHNF.


Although conservation efforts are ongoing in India, Burma, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal (the last two countries having the smallest number of elephants) the biggest threat to the wild elephant is the human-elephant conflict (HEC) which has several causes.

  • The competition for space due to the growing human population. Destruction of forests through logging, slash-and- burn, shifting cultivation, monoculture tree plantations and encroachment into elephant habitats (by human habitation or development projects)
  • Encroachment on elephant migratory routes or fencing of border areas between countries, that impede the free movement of the elephants
  • The elephants’ raids of crops of the shifting cultivators in fields scattered over a large area interspersed with forests
  • Poor governance and implementation of wildlife laws

Dr Khyne U Mar, ‘The Elephant Lady of Myanmar” at EHNF

Dr Khyne U Mar, ‘The Elephant Lady of Myanmar” at EHNF


 Dr Khyne U Mar has been working with captive elephants since the 1990s and is in charge of the Myanmar Elephant Research Project. She manages over 2000 elephants and feels that captive elephants can be very useful in various ways. This was also the consensus of the Forum.

The ways in which captive elephants can be used productively:

  • In teaching us about wild elephants
  • In increasing the population of the species through captive breeding
  • In turning away wild herds from human-inhabited places (specially trained captive elephants called ‘kunkis’ are thus used)
  • As ambassadors for the species, as they were major attractions for people in zoos, circuses, sanctuaries, rescue centres, temples and festivals. These encounters with live elephants could be used to create awareness in people about the plight of the Asian Elephant and mobilize them to spread awareness within their communities.
  • In educating children about the species
  • In eco-conscious elephant-oriented tourism
  • In helping veterinarians and forest officials navigate safely through forests while on work
  • In helping with research into elephant diseases

Susan K. Mikota speaks on outbreak of diseases such as tuberculosis and herpes among elephants

Susan K. Mikota speaks on outbreak of diseases such as tuberculosis and herpes among elephants

The outbreak of diseases such as tuberculosis and herpes among elephants in Asia is also a major cause for concern as this could decimate their numbers drastically.

Positive Outcomes:

  • The Balipara Foundation recognized the need for veterinarians specially trained to look after elephants and has resolved to help set up a centre for such learning within the premises of the College of Veterinary Science, Assam Agriculture University, Guwahati.
  • Dr K.K. Sarma, Head of Surgery & Radiology at this august institution has offered to train veterinarians from Bhutan and other countries in the healthcare and treatment of elephants. (Incidentally, Dr Sarma has the distinction of having captured a record number of 127 rogue elephants. He also states that all the captive elephant births in Assam have been natural deliveries and there has not been a single case of calf mortality.)
  • The forest officials present also agreed to share information and work together to facilitate the free movement of elephant herds in the eastern Himalayan region, regardless of state or national boundaries. This was indeed heartening to hear and one hopes that this augurs well for the future of the endangered Asian Elephant.

Sarita Dasgupta


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