The Asian Elephant: Symbol of a Continent

The Asian Elephant: Symbol of a Continent

Graceful, strong and calm – and just occasionally rambunctious – the Asian elephant is one of the continent’s most enduring symbols.

Revered for its intelligence and long memory, it plays an essential part in the cultural and religious life of many Asian countries.

Lavishly decorated elephants take part in religious processions, both Buddhist and Hindu. The wise Hindu god Ganesh has an elephant’s head on a human body. People place statues of elephants outside homes and offices to bring good fortune. Political parties use them on their logos.

In Laos, they’re the national animal and once adorned the country’s flag. In Cambodia they are carved on the centuries-old temples of Angkor. In Thailand and Myanmar, a white or albino elephant symbolises royalty.  

An Indian mural featuring a decorated elephant. Image: Richard Mcall

Elephants once roamed freely over most of Asia. They are still found in the wild in at least 13 countries. But their numbers have dropped to such an extent that they are now considered endangered.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says more than 100,000 Asian elephants may have existed at the start of the 20th century, but their numbers have fallen to only 40,000 to 50,000 today. The decline is continuing.

These figures will probably be felt strongly by senior travellers in Asia, who can remember a time not so long ago when wild elephants roamed in much larger numbers, in both Asia and Africa.

The main causes of their decline are poaching and the loss of their land to humans. They’re now restricted to just 15 percent of their original range, the WWF says.

A wild elephant watchtower in Nepal. Image: © Alan Williams

As their habitat shrinks, elephants sometimes raid crops and villages, occasionally killing people in the process. In retaliation, elephants themselves are killed. In the long run, it’s a struggle the elephants can’t win.

India has more elephants than any other Asian country. The charity World Animal Protection estimates it has more than 30,000 wild elephants – around 60 percent of Asia’s wild population – and between 4,000 and 5,000 captive elephants.

Other countries with relatively large numbers are Thailand, with more than 7,000 in total, and Sri Lanka, with around 6,000.

Species of Asian elephants

There are three confirmed subspecies of Asian elephant: Indian, Sumatran and Sri Lankan. The Sri Lankan is the largest physically and the darkest. The Indian has the largest numbers and the largest range. The Sumatran is the smallest physically.

Some scientists believe the Borneo pygmy elephant should be recognised as a fourth subspecies. They established in 2003 that the Borneo elephant is genetically different from other elephants in Asia. It’s smaller and gentler.

The Asian elephant has smaller ears than African species. Image: Sasin Tipchai

Asian elephants are smaller than those in Africa, with proportionately smaller ears, and, unlike their African counterparts, only some males have tusks.

Visitors to Asia are far more likely to see captive elephants than wild ones. They drag or push logs, clear debris, work at temples and, most conspicuously, are used in the tourist industry, where they carry people on wildlife safaris, jungle treks and other rides. 

These captive elephants are revered by most local people. Nowhere is this truer than in the South Indian state of Kerala, where they hold an important place in the state’s culture. Most festivals include at least one lavishly decorated elephant. Some religious processions feature many of them, all elaborately dressed up. They even appear on the emblem of the state government.

Feeding time at an elephant sactuary in Sri Lanka. Image: Mohamed Nuzrath

Elephants take pride of place in religious processions elsewhere too. The spectacular annual Esala Perahera pageant in the Sri Lankan hill town of Kandy includes a three-hour final parade that features more than 100 brightly decorated elephants. The 10-day pageant takes place each July/August.

Treatment of elephants

Not all captive elephants are well-treated, however. There’s ample evidence that many of them are chained day and night, fed poor diets, given limited veterinary care and kept in stressful locations.

The living conditions of some elephants in the tourist industry have improved because of outside pressure and the awareness of their owners and mahouts, or keepers, that tourists want to see them well treated.

But in the eyes of some, the improvements aren’t enough. Many travel companies no longer include elephant rides and shows in their tours.

So should a visitor take an elephant ride?

A confession: I’ve done so on two occasions, first on a jungle trek in northern Thailand in 1989, and then on wildlife-spotting safaris in western Nepal 20 years later. So I wouldn’t pass judgement on anyone who decides to do so.

On safari in the Bardia National Park, Nepal. Image: © Alan Williams

In Thailand I had no way of knowing how well the elephants were treated when not working. In Nepal I was able to visit the elephants at rest in a reputable safari camp and satisfy myself that they were well cared for. But I probably wouldn’t take an elephant ride again. Before an elephant can be ridden it has to be tamed, and to some extent this may mean breaking its spirit.

How then can visitors get close to elephants if they decide not to ride them? A good option is to visit them in a properly-run elephant sanctuary. These are found in several countries, including India, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Laos and Cambodia.

One that gets high marks from visitors is the privately-run Elephant Nature Park, a rescue and rehabilitation centre in the countryside outside Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. It gives retired working elephants a safe environment to see out their days.

Good reviews have also gone to the Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri, Cambodia, the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre in Mathura, India, and the Elephant Transit Home in Udawalawe, Sri Lanka.  

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka. Image: © Alan Williams

The government-run Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka is a popular stopping point for tourists on the road from Colombo to Kandy. But animal rights activists have mixed feelings because its elephants are sometimes chained and because it breeds them for sale to zoos.

India, Vietnam, and Myanmar have banned the capture of wild elephants but have not been able to stamp out the practice entirely. In some other countries, capturing wild elephants continues.

The best way to see elephants in the wild is to visit a national park. It’s an exciting experience. National parks in India and Sri Lanka have the largest numbers but visitors can see them in other countries too.

Nepal has fewer than 200 wild elephants, so when I saw a little herd walking along a river bank in Bardia National Park in the country’s west, it was a moment to remember.

Header image: Sasin Tipchai

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