In olden times, many kings in several Asian elephant range countries, kept elephants in their armies. About 1,500 years ago, Kautilya (Chanakya), the preceptor of the masterwork Arthashastra, wrote a detailed account of capturing, training, management, work, use in war, issues of crop raiding and many other aspects of elephant husbandry. Despite historical roots, the traditions of maintaining captive elephants in Asia are currently suffering a widespread, though silent, crisis. In most countries, such elephant keeping traditions were handed down through generations largely by oral instruction. While this has resulted in considerable differences among techniques practised in different regions, the lack of written records and instructions has been partly responsible for the decline that modern elephant keepers face. The high costs of maintaining elephants, restrictions on capturing wild elephants due to their endangered status and the low economic value given to the knowledge of mahoutship are some of the reasons for the slow decline in the quality of elephant care witnessed throughout Asia. As progressively fewer members of mahout families opt for their ancestral profession, the accumulated wisdom of centuries, previously passed on by word of mouth, is threatened with extinction as the few experienced and dedicated Asian mahouts retire.
In addition, many present day elephant owners who view their elephants as profit making machines often resort to highly restrictive practices in an effort to cut costs and maximise the gains by exploitation of this intelligent “working machine”. A strong backlash has come from animal-right groups, who would rather see four millennia of elephant keeping traditions laid to rest, than to silently witness these large intelligent beasts suffer at the hands of ill informed, untrained and often frustrated mahouts and avaricious owners and traders.
Elephant managers in range countries are mainly officers in government or corporate sector responsible for the overall healthcare of elephants and also welfare of mahouts. Since many elephants in Asian range countries are now under private ownership and care, the private elephant owners also play the role of a manager in their individual capacity. Ownership of elephants in Asian range countries in olden times was mainly by landlords or aristocracy and they kept elephants as a status symbol or as a pet than for profit. Such owners hardly ever thought of earning anything by way of income from elephants. However, another new dimension on elephant ownership in the Asian range countries is the concept that keeping elephants can be an economic proposition. Owners who invest huge amounts to purchase an elephant and incur high costs to manage them naturally think, “if a species is to stay, it must pay its way”, which then leads to abuse of animals both out of ignorance and avarice.