Captive Plight

Did you know there is no such thing as a domesticated elephant?

There is an estimated 15,000 Asian elephants in captivity. Most captive elephants are found in zoos, circuses, tourist and work camps, or privately held. The large majority of these elephants endured severe physical, mental, and emotional trauma at a young age to break their wild spirit and then train them for work.

Contrary to popular belief, captive elephants are not domesticated. ‘Domestication’ means the animal has been bred by man through many generations to bring out characteristics that man finds appealing and useful. Captive elephants are, instead, tamed wild animals kept in captivity. Genetically speaking, there is no difference between a wild and a captive Asian elephant. Therefore, the best elephant-friendly facilities will replicate the elephant’s natural environment as closely as possible.


Since all elephants are wild animals, regardless of whether or not they were born in captivity, they must be tamed in order to be worked or trained for human use. The taming process, involves breaking the wild spirit of a baby elephant so it will submit to the will of man. Elephants are usually broken between the ages of 2-4 because they are easier to handle at a young age. The use of small holding pens to immobilize the elephant, physical beatings, use of whips, sticks, nails, fire, sleep deprivation, joint stress, and the withholding of water and food is common. Elephant breaking techniques vary from country to country. In reference to the breaking of elephants in Thailand, the word ‘phajaan’, or separation, is often used. There is some debate about whether ‘phajaan’ is the correct terminology; however, it does not change the reality of the brutal process young elephants endure. In Sri Lanka, an attempt was made to break wild an adult elephant. This attempt failed, and resulted in a brutal and tragic death.

Poor quality care

Sadly, most captive elephants facilities do not provide proper care. The elephants physically endure overwork, improper diet, lack of clean water, foot ailments, musculoskeletal problems, chain wounds, improper climate, skin disorders, and more. The elephant’s emotional and mental wellbeing is often overlooked. Mental and emotional disorders caused by early separation of calf from mother, harsh taming methods, isolation, boredom, oppression, and living in fear of physical pain are common. Read about Elemotion’s Captive Philosophy here.


Stereotypy, a constant rocking or bobbing behavior, is a psychological disorder only seen in captive elephants. It is coping mechanism due to poor welfare conditions, trauma, and extreme stress. Many tour operators, irresponsible elephant managers, and poor quality mahouts will try to explain this behavior as ‘happy dancing’ or ‘the elephant is being silly’. This is absolutely FALSE.