Captive elephants

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An elephant carrying tourists sitting on a howda.

Elephants in captivity refers most often to elephants either born in captivity, such as a zoo, circus, or camp, or have been imported from the wild. Most captive elephants are Asian elephants. Selective breeding of elephants is impractical due to their long reproductive cycle, so there are no domestic breeds. African bush elephants and African forest elephants are less amenable to training. There are estimated to be 15,000 to 20,000 elephants in captivity,[1] of a total population of 40,000 to 50,000.[2] Historically, elephants in zoos and circuses were taken from the wild; today, many are born in captivity.


An elephant wearing a caparison (decorative covering).

Tame elephants have been recorded since the Indus Valley civilization around 2,000 BCE. With mahouts, they have been used as working animals in forestry, as war elephants (by commanders such as Hannibal), for cultural and ceremonial use (such as temple elephants), as a method of execution, for public displays such as circus elephants, in elephant polo and in zoological gardens.

The expression white elephant derives from a white elephant being considered sacred and therefore disqualified from useful work, yet posing a large ownership cost.[3] The origin of the expression is from the story that the kings of Siam gave white elephants as a gift to courtiers they disliked, in order to ruin the recipient by the great expense incurred in maintaining the animal.[4]

Behaviour and training[edit]

An elephant painting.
A temple elephant being washed at a Hindu temple in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu.
black and white photograph of Sydney street parade with an elephant on a circus float
Elephant from Wirth's Circus in a Sydney street parade - taken in 1938

Elephants have the largest brains of all land animals, and ever since the time of Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle,[5] have been renowned for their cognitive skills, with behavioural patterns shared with humans. Pliny the Elder described the animal as being closest to a human in sensibilities.[6] They also have a longer lifespan than most livestock. Elephants exhibit a wide variety of behaviors, including those associated with grief, learning, allomothering, mimicry, play, altruism, use of tools, compassion, cooperation, self-awareness, memory, and language. The adult male elephant occasionally goes through a musth period, making him dangerously aggressive.


Successful hand-rearing of orphaned calves depends critically on the milk formula used. Human infant formula is commonly used, but requires to be supplemented with bovine colostrum (commercially available in substitute form), and lactobacillus to protect the gastrointestinal tract. To provide additional fat, desiccated coconut and butterfat are added, with vitamin and mineral supplements, in particular vitamin E, vitamin B, and calcium. Rice water strained from cooked rice and glutinous rice broth are useful and are added to the formula to combat diarrhea. Rice cereal, milled whole barley or oatmeal, desiccated coconut, and other ground solid foods are added to the milk of older calves to ease the transition to solid foods.[7]

Professor Niels Bolwig at Ibadan University, Nigeria in 1963 successfully reared an orphaned infant elephant from a few days old by developing his own rich milk formula consisting of cows' milk and butter fat. This is believed to be the first successful rearing. Until then most rearing attempts had been unsuccessful due to diet intolerance.

Welfare concerns[edit]

Animal welfare researchers have raised concern about the physical and mental health of elephants in captivity at zoos in the UK and the US.[8]

Disease transmission[edit]

According to a report published by the Center for Disease Control, in North America, approximately 2% of African, and 12% of Asian captive elephants are thought to be infected with tuberculosis.[9]

In 2012, two elephants in Tete d’Or Zoo, Lyon (France), were diagnosed with tuberculosis. Due to the threat of transmitting tuberculosis to other animals or visitors to the zoo, their euthanasia was initially ordered by city authorities but a court later overturned this decision.[10]

At an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, a quarantined 54-year-old African elephant being treated for tuberculosis was considered to be the source of latent (inactive) tuberculosis infections in eight workers.[9][11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Elephants in Captivity". ElephantVoices. Retrieved 10 April 2015. 
  2. ^ Choudhury, A.; Lahiri Choudhury, D.K.; Desai, A.; Duckworth, J.W.; Easa, P.S.; Johnsingh, A.J.T.; Fernando, P.; Hedges, S.; Gunawardena, M.; Kurt, F.; et al. (2008). "Elephas maximus". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. 
  3. ^ "Royal Elephant Stable". Thai Elephant Conservation Center. Retrieved 7 September 2014. 
  4. ^ "White elephant". Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved September 8, 2014. 
  5. ^ O'Connell, Caitlin (2007). The Elephant's Secret Sense: The Hidden Lives of the Wild Herds of Africa. New York City: Simon & Schuster. pp. 174, 184. ISBN 0-7432-8441-0. 
  6. ^ Erica Fudge, ed. (2004). Renaissance Beasts: Of Animals, Humans, and Other Wonderful Creatures. University of Illinois Press. pp. 172–173. ISBN 9780252091339. 
  7. ^ "Hand Raising and Diet Supplementation of Calves" - Colleen Kinzley and Karen Emanuelson Archived October 4, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
  8. ^ Harris, M.; Sherwin, C.M. & Harris, S. (2008). "The welfare, housing and husbandry of elephants in UK zoos." (PDF). Defra. Retrieved January 18, 2014. 
  9. ^ a b Murphree, R; et al. "Elephant-to-human transmission of tuberculosis". Emerging Infectious Diseases. 17 (3): 366–371. doi:10.3201/eid1703.101668. 
  10. ^ Anon (2 March 2013). "Victory for Brigitte Bardot as elephants are reprieved". The Telegraph. Retrieved 2 March 2013. 
  11. ^ Ghianni, T. (18 February 2011). "Elephant behind TB outbreak at Tennessee sanctuary". Reuters. Retrieved 1 February 2013.