Elephants: Domestic or Captive?

Elephants: Domestic or Captive?

The relationship between Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) and humans has a long, complex, and partially obscure history. It is not known when the first elephant was captured or kept by humans, but it is generally agreed that the earliest known representations of elephants in captivity have been found on seals from the Harappan culture, produced at least 4,000 years ago. These seals were found in Mohenjo-Daro, located in present-day Pakistan, and clearly depict elephants restrained by ropes. Although these are the earliest known representations of elephants kept by humans, it is important to remember that a lack of additional physical evidence does not imply that elephant keeping was confined to one geographical area at that point in time, and may have already been widespread. Some sources claim that humans may have been keeping elephants for the past 8,000 years or longer.

Assuming conservatively that humans have been keeping elephants for 4,000 years, it is certain that millions of Asian elephants have been captured or bred in captivity during that time. It is unsurprising, then, that elephants, both wild and captive, occupy an important role in the culture and religion of many countries. Given our shared – and highly storied – history with elephants, it is natural for humans to contemplate the exact nature of the relationship between the two species, and consider the impact each has had on the other. One question central to understanding humans’ relationship with any other species is that of domestication. Can the animal be truly domesticated? If so, has it been domesticated? And how exactly can we know? The purpose of this article is to offer an introduction to the nomenclature of domestication and the contextual validity of terms such as “domesticated” and “captive,” and discuss the implications of these for Asian elephants.

The semantic exercise of characterising elephants as domesticated, captive, or any other distinctive term may not, at first glance, seem important. However, the process of selecting an accurate adjective is worthwhile in that it necessitates consideration of such often ignored factors as the provenance of elephants in captivity and the extent of genetic manipulation in non-wild populations. Additionally, there is undeniable power in language, and some descriptive words can convey – intentionally or otherwise – positive or negative connotations, influencing personal opinion, public perception, and, occasionally, even legal status.

In the case of Asian elephants, the legal definitions of “captive” and “domestic” vary widely in jurisdictions where elephants are endemic. While the overall level of elephant protection or mistreatment in a country depends on myriad factors, including enforcement, funding, and legal consequences for criminal actions, the specific terms used in legislation, as well as how they are defined, can have serious implications. The availability and complexity of accurate language translation may combine with cultural differences to influence which English-language descriptor is commonly used within a particular human population, and regional ethical variances must also be considered.

Law Insider defines a “Captive Animal” as:
“Any animal (not being a domestic animal) which is in captivity or confinement, whether permanent or temporary, or which is subjected to any appliance of contrivance for the purpose of hindering or preventing its escape from captivity or confinement or which is pinioned or which is or appears to be maimed.”

While this is a legal definition, is consequently quite broad, and can be disputed on several points, it is important to note that it clearly differentiates a “captive” animal from a “domestic” animal. Many have attempted to define precisely which qualities indicate that an animal has been domesticated, as opposed to remaining wild. Van Gelder (1969) defines domestic animals as “Populations that are biologically or behaviourally different from their wild ancestors.” Law Insider, however, defines animals which have been domesticated as one which has been “…trained, adapted, and/or bred to live in a human controlled environment.” It can be argued that both of these definitions are considerably oversimplified in nature, but they serve to demonstrate the uniquely complex issues which arise when discussing potential domesticity in elephants.

In the case of dogs, which were almost certainly the first animals domesticated by humans, both of the above definitions of domestication are equally valid and applicable: domesticated dogs have been changed almost unrecognisably from their wild counterparts, both biologically and behaviourally. Equally so, they have unquestionably been trained, adapted, and bred to live in an anthropocentric environment. Asian elephants, on the other hand, could be considered domestic only under the latter definition. While elephants are highly adaptable, and for centuries have certainly been trained to live with humans and perform tasks which do not occur naturally in wild populations, from a biological standpoint, elephants kept by humans do not differ significantly from wild elephants.

With some exceptions, is generally agreed that ‘true’ domestication involves isolation from wild populations, and crucially, human-controlled selective breeding resulting in genetic adaptation over many generations. Van Gelder (1969) states that domestication “is a process undergone by groups or by a population.” This, too, is an important point, demonstrating that no animal taken directly from the wild can truly be considered domesticated in its lifetime. Indeed, even an animal born in captivity to captive-born parents cannot necessarily be considered domesticated. According to conventional wisdom, Asian elephants have never been selectively bred by humans, and certainly not consistently for a period long enough to result in genetic adaptation to living in human environments. Furthermore, due to the Asian elephant’s long gestation period and the fact that the species does not generally breed well in captivity, captured wild elephants have, historically, been integrated frequently into captive populations to bolster herd numbers. Female elephants kept by humans are also often deliberately bred with wild bulls, due to convenience, lower costs, or any number of other reasons.

If Asian elephants cannot be categorised as “domesticated”, and remain – biologically and behaviourally – wild, then which adjective can most accurately be applied? (In the above context, it is generally agreed that “domestic” is synonymous – and can be used interchangeably – with “domesticated.”) Terms which have been used, in addition to domestic and captive, include trained elephants, tame elephants, working elephants, and, regionally, village elephants, household elephants, and timber elephants. Both “village” and “household” are localised and familiar terms which cannot be applied broadly, and “timber” elephants applies only to those elephants engaged in work within the timber industry, whether legal or illegal. Similarly, “working” elephants cannot be accurately utilised for all elephants kept by humans. “Living in domesticity” is vague and unwieldy, and “non-wild” may be useful scientifically, but in common use can be said to be erroneous, even deceptive. Finally, “trained” and “tame” are vague, inaccurate, and misleading. Not all elephants kept by humans can be said to be trained, and as a result of their high intelligence and widely varying personality types, not all elephants living among humans can be said to have been tamed. Some elephants living in captivity dislike human interaction, and will behave extremely aggressively throughout their lives, whereas, conversely, some wild elephants have been known to enjoy engaging with humans, even approaching them, and displaying affectionate or protective behaviours.

We are left, then, with few extant options from which to select an appropriate adjective to describe elephants kept by humans. “Captive” has recently been adopted by many concerned animal welfare bodies, and has quickly gained acceptance among a wider population. This is likely due, in part, to a broader understanding of the innate inaccuracies held by “domesticated” when used in the context of elephants, and an increased understanding of elephant welfare issues in the international community. Generally, from both a physical and legal perspective, “captive” is a logical and accurate description of the situation in which elephants kept by humans exist. Critics of the term, however, argue that while captive is undoubtedly applicable to elephants in certain situations, such as zoos or circuses, it has the potential to be misused in a judgemental, or even disrespectful, manner when applied to elephants in cultures where they have been kept by humans traditionally for millennia, and close human-elephant bonds are forged over lifetimes and generations.

Although sharing clear etymological forebears with “captivity,” in common use “captive” is a more emotionally evocative word, and potentially carries with it negative connotations. Detractors claim the term captive implies too generally that all elephants have been taken directly from the wild, while its proponents claim that “domesticated” may suggest that elephants are more akin to pets than wild animals, and disguise the truth of an almost invariably unbalanced – and potentially abusive – relationship between species.

In Thailand, where elephants are legally considered “domestic” animals in the same vein as livestock, where there is simply no present possibility of releasing all the elephants kept by humans into the wild, and where elephants and their owners remain heavily reliant on income from tourism for survival, the question of whether elephants should be considered “captive,” “domestic,” or something else entirely is an important one, with real-world consequences. Most of the semantic debate, however, has thus far occurred in countries with no native elephant populations. There is hope for a timely resolution which is satisfactory to all human parties, while remaining primarily focused on the welfare of the Asian elephant, but it seems that, for now, the perfect adjective remains elusive.


Lahiri-Choudhury, D. K. (1995). History of elephants in captivity in India and their use: An overview. Gajah, 14: 28-31.

Lair, R. C. (1999). Gone Astray: The Care and Management of the Asian Elephant in Domesticity. Dharmasan Co., Ltd., Bangkok.

Law Insider. (n.d.). ‘Captive Animal Definition.

Law Insider. (n.d.). ‘Domesticated’ Definition.

Van Gelder, R. G. (1969). Biology of Mammals. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.

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