Threats to Domestic Elephants

For thousands of years the elephant was part of the fabric of daily life in Asia. They served primarily to transport goods and people. When the 20th century began, elephants were put to use by the timber industry, destroying their own habitat in the process.

 Except in less-developed Myanmar, the need for elephant labor has steadily declined since World War II, and so has the domesticated Asian elephant population.

With domestic elephants becoming obsolete, the occupation of mahout, or elephant handler, no longer commands the respect it once did. The profession, its specialized knowledge, and the time-honored relationship between man and animal are dying out. Children have little interest in learning the trade. "

The skill level of elephant-keeping, the ability to control bulls, is going down very, very rapidly," says Thai elephant expert Richard Lair. "Ten, twenty, fifty years from now, what are we going to be doing with our bull elephants?”

The biggest problem facing domesticated elephants is unemployment. The situation is perhaps most dire in Thailand, where a complete ban on logging in 1989 put several thousand elephants and mahouts out of work.

An elephant typically eats about 200 kilograms of food a day, "so unless you're a very wealthy person who likes to keep expensive pets, or unless your elephant is actually working for you and generating some income, it's not easy to keep an elephant in captivity," explains Robert Mather, the country representative for the World Wildlife Fund in Thailand.

And while one person can watch a whole herd of cattle or sheep, each elephant needs one person and sometimes two people to look after it.

But with the decline in skilled mahouts, many elephants are now handled by inexperienced people. This leads to elephants that at best are poorly cared for and at worst severely abused. Human keepers are being harmed by elephants more often as well.

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