Captive elephant population has an important role in ex situ conservation of elephants, an accepted norm of conservation for research and education, in recent times. Asian elephants once presented a picture as an ocean of elephants several millions strong from the Tigris-Euphrates valley in Iraq, up and over the mountains of west Asia, South and Southeast Asia, spreading north to Yangtze-Kiang River in China and in south to Sri Lanka, Sumatra and Java. Today, the population of Asian elephants in the wild has dwindled to small islands, many of which are pocketed herds with limited future because of inadequate habitat and inbreeding. Elephants have long gestation and inter-calving periods and usually only one calf is born in a calving. Because of this the managers do not perceive the decrease in the population immediately. Similarly it also takes a considerable time to recover from the damage that has already taken place in the wild. All these issues signify the importance of conservation of the captive population. In the conservation of wild population, measures for habitat protection and management, prevention of poaching, fragmentation of habitat and elimination of human-elephant conflict are important.
Currently, captive Asian elephant populations face diametrically opposite problems i.e., to increase the population of elephants that are endangered at the same time mitigate the problems resulting from increased numbers. Intensive research on reproduction, physiology, genetics, nutrition, musth, communication, tranquillisation, drug-dosage, behaviour, training methods and diseases in captive population forms the basis for ex situ conservation. These factors signify the importance of captive facilities in the field of public education, scientific research, technology development and professional training as a direct support for conservation of the species. It is estimated that, nearly one third of the total Asian elephants is in captivity in range countries and less than 1000 elephants live in captivity in Europe and North America. These figures underline the importance of the captive population in the attempts to save the Asian elephant from becoming extinct. An exchange of knowledge on the various aspects of captive management of these animals between the range country ‘elephantologists’ and scientists undertaking research on captive elephants in North America and Europe can provide timely and critically needed augmentation and assistance to the global elephant conservation efforts.
When compared to Asian elephants, capturing and taming of African elephants have not been very popular. It is even believed by some, that African elephants cannot be tamed since they are not as intelligent as their Asian counterparts, although this has no scientific basis. At the same time many elephant keepers also opine that African elephants are comparatively more temperamental than Asian elephants. The great Carthaginian General Hannibal and his crossing of Alps with elephants from Gaul to Italy to fight the Romans in 219 BC are well known (Scullard 1974). The silver coins, which depict Carthaginian victories, suggest that the elephants used were forest sub-species (Loxodonta africana cyclotis) (Scullard 1948). However, it seems odd that Carthaginians and Egyptians did not use their elephants for any other work. Training of African elephants was surprisingly revived more than 2000 years later by the efforts of King Leopold II of Belgium in Congo in the late 19th century as well as in the early 20th century (Stracey 1963; Iversen 1996). However, the modern era of domestication of African elephant is more for the purpose of riding to cater tourist interests. Apparently, the use of captive African elephants is not likely to go beyond a tourist attraction. Compared to this, one out of every three Asian elephants surviving today is held in captivity. Proper management and healthcare of the captive population are crucial to the long-term goals of conserving this species.