Panel Five:

Long Lasting Bonds Under Threat

While the recent Sars-Covid2 pandemic might be fatal for mahout-elephant relations in many parts of South and Southeast Asia, this panel engages with major threats this millennial companionship has been faced in recent years (notably the impact of tourism and occupational changes related to biodiversity measures and conservation). Drawing from case studies in Nepal, Myanmar and Thailand  the presentations of this panel consider these threats and the needed efforts to be undertaken for this inextricable link between mahouts and elephants to be maintained in future.

The panel will be chaired by Nicolas Lainé, from UMR PALOC "Local heritage, environment and globalization", Institut de Recherche pour le Développement and the Musée national d'Histoire naturelle, Paris.


Managing Elephants in the Modern World: Insights into Current Elephant-handler Relationships in Myanmar and How They Impact Elephant Health, Stress and Behavioural Indicators

Jennifer Crawley

University of Turku, Finland

The current extinction crisis is leaving us increasingly reliant on captive populations to maintain vulnerable species. The interactions animals have with humans within captivity considerably impact their wellbeing, and effects depend on the familiarity and quality of the relationship. Asian elephants have been managed by humans for millennia, and >25% live in captivity today (~16,000), mostly in their range countries. Despite this long history, they have never been fully domesticated as they have always reproduced independently of humans. Instead, we rely on knowledge accumulated over generations of specialised elephant handlers, known as mahouts, to handle these essentially wild animals. This ancient profession, and the associated lifestyle, may be under threat in the modern day. Here I will talk about the keeping system of semi-captive timber elephants in Myanmar, the largest captive population of Asian elephants in the world (~5000). I investigated recent changes to the mahout system through interviews with experts of over 10 years' experience and with current mahouts from camps in Northern Myanmar. I found that mahouts now are younger, less experienced, and change elephants frequently; factors indicating a threat to traditional knowledge transfer. I will also present how these changes may be affecting elephant welfare, by measuring multiple welfare indicators in relation to mahout-elephant relationship lengths and mahout total experience. These measure elephants’ physiological stress (Faecal glucocorticoids, Heterophil:Lymphocyte ratio), muscle function (Creatine Kinase/CK), immunological health (Total White Blood Cell count/TWBC), and behaviour (response to simple commands). My results suggest little evidence of the mahout-elephant relationship affecting physiological stress in this population but mahout experience and relationships are linked to other physiological responses and elephants require behavioural adjustment periods following mahout changes. I specifically suggest a need for active circulation of expert knowledge through formal training, rather than relying on passive transfer.


Sanctuary Showdown: Elephants at the Intersection of Culture, Care and Tourism  

Michelle Szydlowski

Department of Anthrozoology, University of Exeter 

Captive elephants in the Sauraha area of Nepal—and those who care for them—find themselves at a crossroads.  INGOs interested in the welfare of these individuals have tried, unsuccessfully, to implement a variety of sanctuary-like systems.  What is missing from these attempts is any attempt to consider the actual welfare of elephants and their caregivers, not just external perceptions of welfare.  There is a dearth of research into what exactly constitutes elephant welfare, so one aspect of this paper is to consolidate an overview of available studies and create a checklist of welfare parameters for captive elephants in Asian stables.  However, all of these organizations claim to want ‘what is best’ for these marginalized elephant-mahout communities.  What follows is an examination of the organizations who have tasked themselves with improving the lives of individuals in Sauraha, how their discourse does not always align with their practices, and how their inter-agency cooperation, or lack thereof, impacts the status of elephants and mahouts. 

Jacob Shell on elephant.jpg

Mahuto-Futurism: Human-Elephant Cohabitation in the Ecumenopolis

Jacob Shell

Associate Professor, Temple University  

Many conservationist studies concerned with the future viability of the Asian elephant species (Elephas maximus) focus their attention on the short-term horizon, analyzing various land-use, legal, or funding possibilities for the next decade or two. While this temporal framing is certainly valuable and merits continuing emphasis, it misses a looming problem for the elephants, as well as for a great many other species: the plausibility that the planet-wide human population will increase so dramatically over the next century and beyond, that certain habitats such as temperate and tropical forestland will be entirely displaced by urbanization and agriculturalization. Some conservationist and environmentalist thinkers may find the question of long-term human population growth to be non-urgent, due to the prevalence in recent decades of certain demographic projections which have the global human population plateauing at around 11 to 15 billion by 2100. This projected population is sufficiently similar to the present-day population of 8 billion that, for many, it may seem appropriate to proceed as if the challenges faced by non-human species in 2140 will be similar to those faced in 2040—that is, as if a short term orientation already “covers” the long-term. But these projections are in fact highly questionable and suspect in their core assumptions, as they’re premised on the idea of a kind of permanent techno-social and political-economic stasis emerging—a permanent stasis which would in fact be quite unprecedented.

An alternative current of thinking, what I’d loosely term “futurism,” begins from a premise that radical shifts in the techno-social and political economic organization of the planet will in fact take place. From this vantage point, the concept, or specter, of “ecumenopolis,” developed by 1960s urban planning theorist Constantinos Doxiadis, merits attention within environmentalist discourse. Doxiadis imagines human urbanization proceeding from being contained to an archipelago of urban dots and megalopolitican corridors (i.e., the late 20th century and early 21st century situation), to eventually spilling beyond these spatial containers and filling up entire continents and eventually the whole planet. This planet-wide city is the “ecumenopolis.” There is no demographic plateau in Doxiadis’ scenario, at least not until the ecumenopolis has been realized.

Conservationist and environmental thinkers should not dismiss this scenario as mere sci-fi fantasy; they need to imagine problems and possibilities in a potential “ecumenopolitan” planetary future. This need is especially pronounced for conservationists who are centrally concerned with species whose biospatial needs, in terms corporeal size and ranging, exceed those of the human corporeal unit around which urbanization has conventionally been organized: conservationists concerned, that is, with megafauna like elephants. Will there be room for elephants in an ecumenopolis? 

As a mode of academic discussion, futurism is fraught with certain difficulties, such as the problem of pure fantasism. In one kind of pure fantasy, we could imagine saving the elephants by finding a suitable planet for them in a different star system. Such a scenario has rather limited theoretical value for our purposes, and so the presentation will seek to avoid this current of imagining. Instead, my discussion will be partially grounded in the scope of possibility for human-elephant sociologies and geographies which has already been empirically established. This empirically grounded segment of the discussion will look in particular at studies on elephants who have been absorbed into certain human working communities, assisting in tasks like flood-time transport and logging (such practices persist in some parts of Burma and northeast India). The pivotal human figure who provides the elephant with access to the human work environment, and thus who widens the scope of future possibility for human-elephant co-species cohabitation, is the elephant rider: the mahout. Though the mahout is oftentimes presented as an archaic, or outdated figure, the presentation stresses the futuristic potential of the mahout and of the certain aspects of the mahout-elephant dynamic.

Beyond this empirically-grounded discussion of the mahout-elephant duo’s practical socio-geographical abilities, the presentation highlights various works of art (such as the illustration of mid-20th century science-fictional artist Frank B. Paul) and works of literature (such as the “megadonts” and “mahout unions” of Paulo Bacigalupi’s vision of 23rd-century Bangkok) which can begin to visually and narratively articulate a “mahuto-futurism” to elephant conservationists and planetary futurists alike. Finally, the presentation will redirect both the empirically-grounded and the futuristic segments of the discussion towards a re-framing of how we conceive of elephant conservationist discourse in the present day and onward.