Panel Three :

Sharing Practices, Cultures, and Identities

The presentations in this panel show how much living with elephants cannot be summed-up by a utilitarian or one-way relation. Being engaged in daily relationships with elephants can mean so much more including constituting who we, as humans, are in terms of culture and identity. The sharing of environment and life over the long-term offers a space where learning from each other and sharing practises is mutually beneficial for both humans and elephants.

This panel will be chaired by Khyne U Mar from the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, The University of Sheffield


Human-elephant multispecies culture among the Karen of northern Thailand

Alexander Greene

Laboratoire Écologie, Évolution, Interactions des Systèmes Amazoniens (LEEISA), Université de Guyane, Cayenne, France

An increasingly diverse range of research on Asian elephants has focused on their complex entanglements with human communities. Informed by the recent emergence of multispecies theory, I present an analysis of human-elephant culture in the context of small Karen communities in northern Thailand with a history of living alongside semi-domesticated or captive wild elephants. Beginning with a Karen origin story of elephants, a series of rituals, beliefs and practices are described in relation to the different stages of elephant lives. This ethnographic data provides evidence of a nuanced human-elephant culture that has evolved over centuries of cohabitation and shared labor. In this context, elephants are not only captives of humans, but are also perceived to be members of the human family, and are afforded a certain degree of agency. The dynamic nature of this human-elephant relationship is discussed in relation to its historical progression from agricultural and village companionship, through human-elephant teams employing in the logging industry, to its modern expression in a range of tourism-oriented elephant camps and programs. I argue that the recognition of a multispecies human-elephant culture in the northern Thai highlands provides a valuable approach to understanding the relations between these two competing and cooperating species.

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Laotian mahouts and their elephants: Glimpses into a multispecies Medicine

Nicolas Lainé

Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD/UMR Paloc) 
Research Institute of Contemporary Southeast Asia (IRASEC) in Bangkok

Drawing on ethnographic data gathered in northwestern Laos,  I will focus on the local knowledge and practices of medicine and care for working elephants. My presentation aims to open reflexions on the possibility of shared and co-produced knowledge between humans and elephants.

While inquiring into the local perceptions of elephant diseases in Tai Lue villages, my informants insisted that elephants have a rich knowledge of the forest, which they express by looking for specific specimens and parts of plants (bark, leaves or roots). If the mahouts provide them with the necessary plants for a healthy diet, they are aware that the elephants are able to supplement it, thanks to the abundant diversity of the spaces they pass through their company. Contrary to elephant management in tourist or conservation centers, in the village, mahouts and elephant owners do not claim to control all aspects of animal feeding and care. 


An ethno-veterinary analysis of practices of health and care for elephants in this region must include an additional and essential more-than-human element. That is, respect for the knowledge of the elephants themselves, and their capacities for self-medication. I will first report on a set of ethnoveterinary practices of mahouts and elephant health specialists (mo xang) in Laos which will highlight similarities in human and elephant treatment both in terms of ritual and remedies medicine. I will then focus on some specific specimens to suggest hypotheses on the sharing and co-construction of medical knowledge between humans and elephants.


Nāgādhyakshaçaritha: Elephant–mahout relationships in two communities of southern India

Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan & Anindya Sinha

School of Natural Sciences and Engineering, National Institute of Advanced Studies,  Bangalore, India  

Anindya Sinha, In Lockdown, Bangalore, M

Human–elephant interrelationships trace back to about 6,000 BCE in Indian rock art, 1,500 to 2,500 BCE in the Indus Valley civilisation or to the Carthaginian era in Europe and north Africa. In modern India, beginning from their role as war animals, domesticated elephants have come a long way, contributing in various ways to the socioeconomic development and public life of different communities in the Indian subcontinent. Today, however, they appear to be most widely known for their participation in pageantries in the southern Indian state of Kerala, with social media feverishly promoting the enormously popularity of individual elephants. Sadly, what remains largely unrecognised and ignored in these celebrations are the immense contributions made by the anonymous mahouts to the maintenance and well-being of these elephants, now subject to wide commercial use. Mahoutry has traditionally been practised dedicatedly by certain communities in erstwhile Kerala but this, too, is no longer true. In this paper, we first trace the unique history of mahoutry in Kerala, beginning with its description in the Mātangalīla to its manifestation as a commercially lucrative profession in recent times, focussing on how this has seriously impacted human–elephant relations. We also discuss the unique nature of this interspecies relationship in yet another community, the  Malasar of the Anamalai hills, thus reflecting on the widely differing nature of the husbandry  practices that have traditionally forged elephant–human relations across southern India.