Captive Elephant Welfare

The Status of India’s Captive Elephant :

Compassion Unlimited Plus Action along with the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (WRRC) have been following the management practices and upkeep of the estimated 3,500 – 4,000 elephants held in captivity across India. It is not uncommon to see ‘blessing’ elephants stationed at temples, multiple elephants adding pomp and glamour to processions or the element of grandeur to a wedding and other traditional celebrations. Subjugation of this magnitude can only be achieved through cruel methods and pain-inflicting practices. A large team of researchers and experts have studied this extremely cruel yet lucrative industry for decades, and in this span of time have released several reports that document and reveal shocking realities of suffering, neglect and torture that these majestic animals face every single day. These reports reflect the expert evaluation of more than 1,200 elephants all over India held captive in various management regimes. The project to document the lives of these captive elephants was initially planned for two years but has extended to over six years, with research and compilation still ongoing.

Welfare and Management of Elephants in Captivity :

The Workshop on Welfare Parameters and their Significance for Captive Elephants and their Mahouts in India was organized under the auspices of the Project Elephant Directorate, Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change (MoEF & CC), Govt. of India. It is the outcome of an all-India survey (covering 1,200 captive elephants in 12 states of India) conducted by Compassion Unlimited Plus Action (CUPA), Bangalore, in technical collaboration with the Asian Nature Conservation Foundation (ANCF), Bangalore, sponsored by World Society for Protection of Animals (WSPA), U.K. To analyse the large set of data collected initially, parameters and their properties were identified, defined and ratings for each parameter and its property were assigned. Later, this entire process was critically reviewed by experts through the workshop.

Captive Elephants in Circuses :

Elephants in the entertainment industry such as circuses have rarely been studied in a Scientific manner. This report forms one in a series of documents which reveals the actual conditions in which captive elephants live and work. A detailed analysis of the management regime under which they perform and live, with welfare parameters that have been graded objectively and logically, has been presented in this study. It is believed that science should pave the way for intelligent policy-making without resorting to sensationalism and emotive judgments.This report will help to look closer at years of conditioned responses to the use of wild animals in circuses.The attempt to phase the mahout would then be a simple, logical step forward in the right direction, helping both conservation and welfare needs of this wild, iconic species, which  has existed with man for 3,500 years but has never been domesticated.

Wandering Elephants of Punjab :

Captive elephants have not been part of the popular public culture of western India unlike in southern or eastern India. The elephants and their mahouts ave drifted into the Punjab area from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and have rarely been studied for their management or upkeep. They are an unknown group of animals in an unlikely place, in an unsuitable environment and are taken from place to place to earn a living. This report assesses their welfare as to their physical, social and health conditions along with issues related to their management.

 Captive Elephants of Karnataka :

The state of Karnataka has nurtured captive elephants for several centuries. It has provided a variety of facilities and several management systems have evolved in the process such as forest camps, zoo, circus, temple and private individuals based on ownership. The conditions for elephants in captivity are quite different from those available in the wild. This deviation has been used in comparison with their current status to suggest any remedial measures to improve their well-being. One hundred and fifty three elephants were examined and their conditions and welfare status have been assessed through this document.

Model for Elephant keeping and Keeper Welfare :

The  budgeting  of  different activities of elephants kept in captivity provides an opportunity to  compare  the  behaviours exhibited by wild and captive elephants. The  results based on this  approach  may  also  offer  a scope  for  understanding the welfare status of elephants kept in captivity. This analysis tries to associate the connection between elephant activity budget and its reflection on the welfare status of elephants in captivity.  In addition, the  understanding  of  the interaction between elephant and its mahout may also offer some detailed insights on elephant welfare status. The data collection was carried out with the support of school/college teachers/ students, and personnel from NGOs’ from 9 districts of Karnataka. This process provided two distinct benefits, the welfare status of elephants observed was known, and  helped the  observers know more about elephants. This knowledge also aided in teaching biology more effectively in the schools and colleges.

Spatial distribution of Captive Elephant locations in southern India :

This study conducted on Asian Elephants has resulted in obtaining information on the spatial distribution of their locations and their influence on the welfare of the species in captivity.  The spatial data helps in understanding the concept of a welfare location, and this can be defined by determining the landscape features prevalent around the captive elephant. The influence of different landscape elements around the captive elephants can be clearly seen from this investigation.

Captive Elephants of Tamil Nadu :

Unlike their counterparts in the wild, elephants kept in captivity undergo different set of living conditions. The welfare status of the elephants, and the socio-economic status and professional experiences of elephant handlers in three  institutions: Forest Camps, Temple and Zoo in Tamil Nadu, are highlighted through this investigation. This investigation traces the level of deviations elephants have to undergo if they are kept in human influence and unnatural conditions.

Captive Elephants of Gujarat :

The occurrence of wild animals outside their existing natural range occurs only under captive conditions. The maintenance of wild animals beyond their natural range areas may involve exposing them to unsuitable environment. This document investigates the welfare status of captive elephants belonging to three temples (Jaganathapur temple at Ahmedabad, Hanuman temple at Baroda and Suraj Ramji Mandir at Surat), and elephants at the Forest department and Zoo in the state of Gujarat. Data was collected through observation of elephants, and interviews with mahout and/or management regarding housing conditions, provision of everyday food and water requirements, veterinary care and opportunity for expression of natural behaviors as seen in wild elephant.

Captive Elephants in Zoos :

The zoos in India are home to a diverse species of animals and elephants that form a part of the captive set of animals. We sampled 49 elephants from 11 zoos covering seven States in India. Welfare of the elephants kept in these zoos have been assessed through a number of parameters which have been rated on a scale identified by a team of experts. The investigation and resultant  document are the first detailed report dealing with population status, management and welfare on elephants in captivity in zoos sampled across India.

Database for captive Elephants and their Mahouts in Karnataka

This investigation is aimed at developing a comprehensive database for elephants and their mahouts in Karnataka state. This also became a source of creating fact sheets or profiles for elephants kept in different management regimes in the state. It is assumed that, this experiment & analysis may act as a tool for better management and monitoring device for the state wildlife department and others involved in welfare and management of the species in captivity.


Published Reports on India’s Captive Elephants –  Specific Assessments :

In the News :

November 2015: Release of CUPA-ANCF publication “Captive Elephants in India” Ten years ago, in 2005, CUPA along with the Asian Nature Conservation Foundation (ANCF) joined hands to inquire into the status of India’s captive elephants – with approximately 3,500 elephants languishing in captivity but almost zero factual documentation, this dire situation could not be addressed. At a recent International symposium on Ecology and Health Management of Asiatic Elephant held in New Delhi on November 19-20, 2015, CUPA and ANCF co-released their ultimate publication “Captive Elephants in India- Ecology, Management and Welfare” – a culmination of 44 reports with various inputs and findings by multiple experts in the field. The Book and DVD was released by Mrs. Maneka Gandhi, a well-known crusader of animal welfare and rights. The event also featured a 7-minute extract from Brigitte Kornetzky’s film “When the Elephant Sleeps” – a daunting clip that reveals the brutal cruelty to Rajasthan’s tourist elephants by ignorant and indifferent keepers. This was followed by a panel discussion on “Elephant Predicament” featuring eminent experts – Ms. Gauri Maulekhi from PfA Uttarakhand, Mr. Vivek Menon from the Wildlife Trust of India, Dr. Susan Mikota of Elephant Care International, Mrs. Suparna B. Ganguly from CUPA and Dr. Surendra Varma from ANCF who engaged in a lively dialogue with the participants, voicing their opinions on a range of academic, medical and welfare aspects. Contact us on cupablr@cupaindia.org if you would like to receive a soft copy of the book. We hope that this literature forms the foundation for far more extensive work and efforts to instigate urgent change and bring about much needed relief to the lives of captive elephants.

March 2014: Elephants in Captivity

Karnataka is home to several captive elephants, owned by temples and other religious institutions that use them for processions, begging outside temples, marriages, and other frivolous purposes. CUPA has been monitoring the welfare of these elephants, several of whom have severe health issues and kept in inadequate spaces.Deccan Herald reports the condition of one such temple elephant in Nanjangud, Gowri, and how observations of her deteriorating health have fallen on deaf ears.


Gods In Chains by Rhea Ghosh

Elephants in India are widely revered yet, simultaneously maltreated. Rhea Ghosh’s book “Gods in Chains” depicts this contradictory relationship flawlessly. She writes of her journey across India, looking into the lives of these majestic creatures kept in captivity. Using the information garnered from her travels and the work of CUPA, WRRC and the articles authored by Peter Jaeggi – a renowned researcher of the condition of captive elephants, Ghosh writes a captivating tale of the life of the captive elephant..

She brings to the surface the different situations in which elephants are held captive in India such as Begging Elephants, Temple Elephants, Circus and Zoo elephants. The book speaks of the complex social groups of elephants and their matriarchal societies which are disrupted due to the settings under which they are imprisoned. They are incredibly astute animals with physical and mental characteristics unique to land animals. It shows the unfair plight of healthy male elephants who are in the state of ‘musth’ being treated like rogue elephants due to their high levels of aggression. Their aggression reduces when they are able to mate, but instead of this, the elephants are subjected to extreme cruelty by their owners and mahouts.

The book also writes about the legal initiatives that have been and can be undertaken as well as other recommendations and initiatives taken in order to improve the conditions of these elephant. In essence it is a masterful glimpse into the lives of these magnificent creatures and their grievances. Click here to purchase a copy of Gods in Chains from Amazon India. 

Elephants, Us, and Other Kin – a study by Dr. Gay Bradshaw Dr. Gay Bradshaw is a friend and mentor to us and is a supporter of all animals, especially elephants. Her lucid and interesting talk in this video details the intelligence, wisdom and mysticism that elephants symbolize. Elephants form family bonds, live long lives, have communication systems that are simply uncanny and their lives closely parallel those of humans and their families. Dr. Gay has done extensive research in Africa and what is fascinating is that everything about African elephants can be said for Asian elephants as well. Listen to this insightful discussion titled ‘Elephants, Us, and Other Kin‘ by Dr. Bradshaw. For more information and a common vision for the welfare of elephants in captivity visit the links WRRC & HelpAnimalsindia.


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