Elephant-keeping cultures


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IN India, like elsewhere in Asia, the elephant is currently at the heart of debates which mobilize different stakeholders with an interest in the welfare of elephants living among men, as well as those living in the wild. Alarmed and pressurized by activists and environmentalists belonging both to animal and environmental ethics, unprecedented decisions have been taken regarding this animal at the national level in the last few decades. As a generalization, all recent actions regarding the elephant take the direction of a rupture and separation between men and elephants. On one hand, it is proposed that wild elephants should be placed and monitored in protected areas, while, on the other, arguing that captive elephants should be released from the abuse and poor living conditions provided by their owners or mahouts.

Based on research conducted on the interrelationships between Khamtis and elephants in Northeast India, this paper takes a contrary position, stressing the need of living and working with pachyderms for their conservation and welfare. It argues that if the elephant is suffering in captivity in many regimes in India, a viable solution through ‘living together’ may be found in elephant-keeping cultures1 still alive in some parts of the country. Through their knowledge and unique relationship with elephants, it seems that elephant-keeping cultures appear to be the best bet for conservation in India today.


Despite the launch of Project Elephant nationally in 1992, after recognizing the precarious situation of elephants in the country, little was initially done to alleviate the plight of captive elephants. This point was highlighted by members of the project themselves, who stated in 2002 that ‘until recently Project Elephant has mostly been busy in activity relating to wild elephants and it has not done much for the welfare of the domesticated elephants’ (S.S. Bist et al. 2002). Since this statement, significant efforts have been made to narrow the gap between attitudes and policies towards wild and captive elephants.2 More recently, with the emergence and growing influence of animal rights activists in the country, protest regarding the living conditions of captive elephants is on the increase.

Between 2005 and 2011, an unprecedented programme – All India Captive Elephant Survey – was conducted in a dozen states of the subcontinent by Compassion Unlimited Plus Action (CUPA), a Bangalore based organization concerned with animal welfare, in collaboration with Asian Nature Conservation Foundation (ANCF), a non-profit charitable trust involved in the conservation of the Asian elephant. The objective of this survey was to provide a snapshot of all pachyderms living among men at the national level. Under the aegis of this programme, since 2006, 42 reports, far more than ever, have been published on the subject. Some reports focus on the management mode of elephants living among men in India (temple, forest elephants, begging elephants, etc.), while others specifically focus on the living conditions of a particular animal.

It is not easy to address critics on such necessary and courageous work, directed mainly by Indian biologist Surendra Varma and his team.3 But surprisingly, despite a dozen or so reports on the various captive elephants regimes in the country, there is silence about elephant-keeping cultures. No report specifically addresses the living condition of elephants managed by any of the remaining elephant-keeping cultures in India today. The latter falls into ‘private-ownership’ category which encompasses the largest number of elephant owners in India. Thus, no distinct and specific information has been collated on them.


This lack of consideration regarding elephant-keeping cultures also eludes the authorities. In the latest national report prepared by the Elephant Task Force, elephant-keeping cultures (or their equivalent) find no mention (Rangarajan et al. 2010). No doubt, the historical traditions of elephant management have been overlooked in today’s India, but that does not mean that they no longer exist.

This appears surprising as more than 15 years back Richard Lair pointed to the importance of elephant-keeping cultures for the future of the elephant in Asia. He stated that, ‘All surviving tribal traditions should be exhaustively studied and documented both for their intrinsic interest, and because some individual techniques of control and hardware might prove useful in a modern composite technique’ (Lair 1997). Despite this call, unequivocally acclaimed by conservationists, little work has been undertaken so far in India or in Asia. Obviously this lacune is primarily the responsibility of social scientists and humanities researchers. Actually, it is as if the question of elephant welfare and management too has been left in the hands of the natural sciences.

This point leads to another criticism. Nowadays, any survey focusing on the living condition of captive elephants is primarily based on quantitative data, which is a common approach in natural sciences. Moreover, if elephants are objects of a flourishing numbers of studies, one must admit that most of them hardly take into consideration the relationship shared between elephants and humans, and the reciprocal influences of each of them. Research is indeed ‘conservation oriented’ and the animals are observed in situ, in their natural habitat; equally, when they aim at assessing welfare and living conditions of elephants, they do not take into consideration the nature of the link shared between men and elephants. Most of these studies consider animals separately from men.


In recent years, however, there has been a growing interest among the humanities and social science researchers to include animals as part of their object of study. An ‘animal turn’ has renewed approaches/methods on the subject into a growing interdisciplinary field of human-animal studies,4 also called anthrozoology. It is worth remembering that till the ‘animal turn’ emerged, the humanities and social sciences often treated the way human societies built relationships with animals in terms of domination and exploitation. But with the emergence of cognitive sciences, they are now reconsidering those relationships, envisaging the place of animals (sometimes called ‘non-humans’) in the formation of interspecies communities to understand the role of animals within the constitution of such communities.

Animals are no more thought of in isolation from the human world but as an integral part of it; considered subjects (instead of objects), animals are capable of interacting with men according to their own subjectivity. It is worth recalling that living with elephants in India (or anywhere else) is neither a biological or cultural process; it is more a ‘natureculture’ entanglement, a ‘becoming with’ (Harraway 2003, 2008). As wonderfully summed up by geographer James Lorimer, ‘Asian elephants are companion species par excellence: too social and sagacious to be objects; too strange to be human; too captive to be wild, but too wild to be domesticated’ (2010: 492).


Taking seriously Richard Lair’s call and in a will to show what humanities can bring to an understanding of the man-elephant bond, I conducted my doctoral research in social-anthropology on the relationship between elephants and a local population in Northeast India. The region is host to several elephant-keeping cultures, still alive and thriving. K.K. Sarma (2004) has reported four specific populations with a long tradition of elephant management – the Rabbahs, Morans, Singphos and Misings. In addition, there are the Khamtis (a Shan population classified as Scheduled Tribes) currently living in the Lohit district of Arunachal Pradesh. Since their migration to Northeast India in the mid-18th century, the Khamtis have captured, tamed and worked with elephants.

By using a methodological framework from the humanities and socials sciences, my line of inquiry explores the coexistence, sociality and cooperation between Khamtis and elephants. My initial intention was to question the implications and conditions of the ‘living together’ between Khamtis and elephants, producing a ‘multispecies ethnography’ (S.E. Kirksey and S. Helmreich 2010). In what follows, I will briefly sum up the main outcomes of this research (Lainé 2013).


Among the Khamtis, the divide between captive and wild elephants does not exist. In their worldview, this distinction would be replaced by village elephant (chang maan) and forest elephant (chang thun). This divide provides an indication regarding the importance and consideration of the animals in the society.

Indeed, before considering living together, the elephants must be protected and respected as any other living being in the society. In order to do that, several mediations with nature and supernatural elements are necessary. Being Buddhist from the therravada branch, Khamtis also worship spirit cults such as phi muang, the guardian spirit under whom all living being are protected. They consider elephants in the forest to be under the guidance of a spirit deity called Chao Pling Chang (literally, the one who conducts an elephant, i.e., a mahout) and a lord, King Udena. The Khamti must give allegiance to these deities and reassure them that the elephant will be well looked after among men. Only then can begin the transformation of a forest elephant into a village one.

The training period is important within this inter-species community. This is the time when man and animal get to know each other, define modalities and forms of communication, and create a common intelligible world, which will be used in their future interactions. This initial contact is also crucial in the development of a bond and attachment for their long-term partnership that will evolve on the basis of this primary encounter. Among the various methods of creating a bond with the animal, the Khamtis chant to the elephant during each step of its training. Music, it appears, becomes a pedagogical way of teaching, a communication tool for interacting with the animal.

During fieldwork and data collection, one point rapidly became evident. Despite a number of Khamtis who could share direct and long-term experiences with the pachyderms, paradoxically, few of them actually owned elephants at the time of the survey. The main reason was that they sold their animals after the Supreme Court order of 1996 imposed a ban on felling trees. The consequences of this decision led to a general impoverishment of society, and had an adverse impact on the living together between Khamtis and elephants (Lainé 2012). Left with little choice, and considering the capital value represented by elephants, many Khamtis were forced to sell them. Thus, the first outcome of the research was that among the Khamtis, working with elephants is a necessary condition for living with them. In the research, the work performed with or by pachyderms became central to question of the Khamtis-elephants’s living together.


A major challenge of the research then was to apprehend working activities such as plowing the field and timber hauling, jointly performed by Khamtis and elephants. Moreover, by revealing the terms and forms of interspecific interactions of Khamtis and elephants at work, this part of the research also helped in understanding how the links initially forged between Khamtis and elephants evolved after the training of the animal. In doing so I was inspired by the work of French sociologist J. Porcher, who apprehends human/ non-human communities from the angle of labour. This author has suggested that when performing a task requiring partners from different species, labour’s world is pre-eminently an encounter (2011). During labour’s activities, the mahout and his elephant have definitely to act and communicate according to their own physical and cognitive capacities. Khamti- elephant relationships and interactions have been conceptualized in term of interspecies working communities. The core of the research was based on minutiae of ethnography of daily activity (bathing and feeding the animal) and work (mainly in the timber industry), resulting in participative observation.


The analysis of data collected during several working sessions engaging Khamti-mahouts and elephants reveal that at work elephants do not ‘simply’ coordinate their action with mahouts; both of them collaborate to perform the requisite tasks. This distinction between coordination and collaboration is crucial for assessing the working conditions of the elephant. Indeed, while a coordination of gestures and actions can easily be associated with mechanical action, an effective and efficient collaboration engaged subjectivity and the intention of the subject. Besides the demonstration of skills and cognitive abilities of each protagonist, achieving common tasks is only possible through negotiation, and a mutual engagement of man and elephant. This collaboration was observed during the major tasks in which mahouts and elephants are engaged in while digging the logs or pushing the trucks.

Apart from the elements mentioned above, I gathered information about the living condition of elephants and the measures undertaken for its welfare during my stay in Lohit. Contrary to what is routinely pointed out by abolitionists as well as welfarists, it must be mentioned that during my two-year stay among the Khamtis, I never witnessed any use of ankus to control the animal. In addition, when a metal chain was used to manage a pachyderm, it was not to tie the animal at work, but for digging and pushing logs. The work sessions were generally conducted early in the morning or before sunset. It must be mentioned that unlike in other parts of India, elephants living among men in the Northeast have a high reproductive rate, with living conditions close to those of wild elephants (Sarma 2010).

As a conclusion of the research, it was found that the relationship between the Khamtis and elephants is based on trust (and not domination) resulting in long-term and mutually enriching experiences of Khamti-elephant interaction.


What can this research based on the study/consideration of men and elephant together, bring to the conservation and welfare of elephants? It first stresses the importance of working with elephants to sustain the living-together. But, if elephants’ work appears to be the condition for living together, it does not mean that any activity performed with and by elephants in India can be declared as work. Indeed, the reports prepared by Varma and his team clearly revealed that elephants suffer in the day-to-day activities in which they are used in the country. Also, while doing my M.Phil in Kerala (Lainé 2005), I observed that the relationships between mahouts and elephants, especially during temple festivals, were based on fear. Actually, working with an elephant implies to render this work interesting for the animal and to acknowledge it by ensuring proper conditions for it to perform the requested tasks. The mahout with whom the elephant is teamed must gain his trust, so that together they can actively collaborate and not merely coordinate their actions. Moreover, as the research on the Khamtis showed, living and working with elephants had engaged them in a caring relationship.


Banning elephants from the human presence at his side, and excluding them from society by creating a rupture does not seem to be the best solution for a viable future of the species. In the present scenario of elephant conservation, it is likely that the consequence of separating man and elephants in a distinct territory may encourage poaching and lead to a ‘ghettoization’ of elephants (Jayantha Jayewardene 2007). As rightly pointed out by Raman Sukumar, ‘Our present management of elephants needs a realistic approach against the idealistic view of not to have any elephants in captivity’ (Sukumar 2008:93). This pragmatic position poses the challenge of reinventing new uses for elephants across Asia, and to properly manage them. In that direction, the way elephant-keeping cultures share their living with elephants can be a useful resource. The importance of this animal in the daily lives of these populations requires them to avoid all types of animal abuse.

If India is to assume a leadership position in elephant conservation worldwide, it should not forget the richness of elephant-keeping cultures still vibrant in many part of the country. But currently, elephant-keeping cultures are generally the first victims of decisions taken at the national level.

We argue that the elephant-keeping cultures in India are potentially the best (and unexplored) hope for the conservation of elephants. It is thus important for anyone working for the conservation and preservation of elephants in India to spend time with one of the few remaining elephant-keeping cultures in the country, to observe their unique bond with pachyderms, and to learn from them.


Conscious that such a proposal may sound controversial to many, particularly to those among the animal activist lobby, we have to remember that living with humans transforms elephants (and animals in general). As pointed out by the French sociologist Jocelyne Porcher (2002), living within human societies gives them a second ‘nature’, a second world situated at the intersection of their own world in the forest and the world of the village: when an elephant is born among human society and other congeners, his ‘nature’ has little to do with a ‘born free’ animal.



1. In this paper the expression ‘elephant-keeping culture’, refers to what is generally called ‘tribal mahoutship’ across Asia. It includes local traditions in elephant management.

2. As for example, guidelines regarding the management of captive elephants have been published by the Government of India (see GoI 2008).

3. Most of the reports conducted under his guidance and/or supervision can be downloaded on Asian Nature website www. asiannature. org

4. For a presentation overview of this growing interdisciplinary field of research see, among others, DeMagello (2013).



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