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The Asian Elephant

Elephants are deeply entrenched in the culture and history of much of Asia, and no other animal, except perhaps the dog, is so closely bound to the lives of human beings. These great mammals have served Asian societies as revered figures in religion, skilled workers for the logging industry, and even great heroes in decisive battles in history. Yet, what is most incredible, is that unlike a dog, Asian elephants have never been bred selectively, and thus both genetically and behaviourally, they are wild animals.


Asian elephants are full grown around the age of 20. At this age mature male elephants annually enter a condition known as musth, which is marked by secretions from the musth glands behind the eye, an increase in aggression, and an association with females that usually leads to mating.

Elephant pregnancy generally lasts 22 months, and usually results in only one baby. At birth, the young usually weigh between 165 and 330 pounds (only 4 percent of an adult female's weight and 2 percent of a male's). Young begin weaning in their first year and finish in their 10th year.

Death occurs as late as 60 or 70 years of age. As with many herbivores, an elephant in the wild usually dies of starvation; when the last of its six molars is worn down, the animal can no longer chew

The trunk of an elephant is paramount to the animal's survival, without it the animal would die. Elephants use this wonderful appendage to suck up water, and for eating by detaching vegetation and fruit and placing it in their mouths. Over 40,000 muscles are in the trunk, and almost as many bones. A small, fingerlike projection on the tip of the trunk allows the elephant to pick up small objects. Their eyesight is not terribly acute, but their sense of smell is very good, as they are able to detect their favorite foods from as much as 12 miles away. And the animals use high-pressure infrasound to hear, which gives them a spatial picture of their surroundings.

Despite the fact that an elephant eats from 300 to 500 lbs of food a day, as much as 80 percent of what elephants consume is returned to the soil as barely digested highly fertile manure.

Elephants, despite their great bulk, are among the nimblest of animals. Their slow, sure-footed gait enables them to walk across a narrow log, to stand on their hind legs on top of a barrel, and even do handstands! The elephant's extraordinary sense of balance was one of the reasons these creatures were so successful at forest logging, which ironically doomed them to a life of hard labor.

The elephant drivers, 'mahouts' as they are known in India, or 'Kwan' in Thailand and Laos, do not take their relationship with the elephant lightly. They of all people know that elephants are wild creatures. Accordingly, the relationship is formalized with ceremonies and a belief system - a sort of forest religion that unites man and beast.

" Naturally, as with every other serious endeavor undertaken in Southeast Asia, there were rituals involved, and that was also the case in the relationship between man and elephant. Many of them pertained to the separation of the calf from its mother, and the initial training that followed, which were conducted only once, and therefore were no longer relevant for Akanee, since he had already been through them. But there were two other important rites that had to be performed repeatedly with an adult elephant, and the Chao Baa was required to know them in order to ensure the well being of both himself and his charge. The first one that he learned to perform was the familiar ba-see ceremony, elephant style. This was done to bind the souls of man and beast together, much like the ba-see performed between intimate friends. A plate containing a banana, some sticky rice, an egg, and flowers, was placed on Akanee's head. Saree held a sacred string tied to this plate, incanting the sacred spells, while the Chao Baa touched the side of the elephant with both hands. Once completed, Akanee formally belonged to his new master. The second ceremony to be learned was one that the Chao Baa should carry out after any lengthy separation between them. It was called koo-at, and its purpose was to cleanse the elephant of any mischievous forest spirits that the creature might have picked up in its wanderings, which could affect its health or behavior in a negative way. "

Excerpt from the novel 'The Plain of Jars'

Problems of the Asian elephant

Why should elephants earn a living? As mentioned above, their natural habitat has been shrinking, and so to keep the population from declining, humans have the responsibility of taking care of them. In Asia, taking care of elephants is a thousands of years old tradition, usually taken on by special tribes, clans, or families who have become expert elephant people, and whose special knowledge has been passed on from generation to generation. The mahouts are typically poor villagers, and so there is a need for the elephants to do some work that generates money. In this situation, the fate of people and elephant are bound together, and in these modern times it means they both suffer from the cycle of poverty. Keeping a single elephant demands exhaustive human care and supervision. Each elephant requires at least one, but usually two or three, full-time elephant keepers or mahouts. Providing food, shade, and water for elephants is a demanding and expensive endeavor.

However, there have been some extraordinary developments, thanks to the ingenuity of the human keepers and the great intelligence of the elephants. In 1998, five elephants at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center were taught to paint pictures, paintings which many connoisseurs consider to be fine art. Elephant paintings sold at an auction at Christies in New York in 2000 raised over US$50,000 and featured in a favourite American television show, 60 Minutes. The Thai Elephant Conservation Center has given birth to an even more startling invention, the Thai Elephant Orchestra, the world's first animal musicians dedicated to making serious music. The orchestra's first CD gained great praise from critics and appeared in media as diverse as CBS Evening News, People magazine, New York Times, The Economist, and many others

For some wonderful photos of elephants check out the Elephant photo gallery

Visitors wishing to find more information, or to offer assistance, can visit the following website:

The National Elephant Institute