India, Stories

Data: More than 60% of Captive Elephants in India are in Private Custody


After the government recently notified the Captive Elephant Transfer rules, there is a renewed discussion & focus on the well-being of elephants. As per data shared by the government in 2019, there were around 2675 captive elephants in India of which more than 60% were in private custody.

The Indian Elephant is a subspecies of Asian elephants native to the Indian subcontinent. These are highly intelligent creatures and exhibit remarkable emotional intelligence. Female elephants form close-knit family units led by elderly matriarchs, while males typically lead solitary lives. Physically, Indian elephants share resemblances with other Asian elephant subspecies like the Sumatran and Sri Lankan elephants but can be distinguished by their smaller, more rounded ears and bodies. They are migratory animals with extensive home ranges, playing a crucial role in maintaining biodiversity and ecological balance by dispersing seeds and creating clearings that facilitate vegetation growth.

Despite their importance as keystone species, Indian elephants face significant threats such as habitat loss, poaching, and conflicts with humans. They are classified as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and are listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Additionally, they are protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, regardless of whether elephants occur in the wild or in captivity. 

Human elephant conflicts are on a rise in India

Shrinking habitats, agricultural expansion, and competing needs have led to increased human-elephant encounters, resulting in conflict situations. This trend is particularly concerning given the significance and vulnerability of elephants in the country. Previously, the statistics related to human deaths due to elephant attacks were discussed in Factly’s story. However, elephants are also affected by human actions. In this story, we examine elephant deaths due to unnatural causes primarily involving humans, such as poaching, poisoning, electrocution, and train accidents. 

Likewise, it is essential to also address the challenges faced by elephants in captivity. Captive elephants, though not directly exposed to these specific causes of unnatural deaths, often experience physical and psychological challenges due to confinement, inadequate living conditions, and unnatural behaviours, highlighting the broader conservation and welfare issues surrounding elephants in both wild and captive settings. 

Unnatural causes have claimed the lives of more than 500 elephants in the last 7 years

India is home to the largest population of wild Asian elephants, estimated at around 30,000 and accounting for nearly 60% of the species’ total population. However, in the last 7 years, about 2% of these died due to unnatural causes with electrocution and train accidents being the most common causes. 

Electrocution is a tragic cause of elephant deaths that occurs when elephants come into contact with electric fences, power lines, or illegally electrified fences set up by farmers to deter wildlife from their crops. A total of 460 elephant lives were lost due to electrocution in the last seven years. Odisha, Assam, and Tamil Nadu reported 50% of such deaths. From 57 in 2015-16, the number peaked to 81 in 2018-19 and has dropped since then.

Train accidents claimed lives of more than 100 elephants

Elephant deaths in train accidents pose a significant threat to India’s elephant population. These accidents occur when elephants, often while crossing railway tracks, are hit by speeding trains. Between 2015-16 and 2021-22, a total of 110 elephants reportedly lost their lives in train accidents. Assam reported the highest (40) followed by West Bengal (21).

Kerala reported highest elephant deaths due to poaching

Poaching of elephants in India remains a serious concern despite conservation efforts. Elephants are primarily targeted for their tusks, which are highly sought after in illegal ivory trade markets. Poaching claimed the lives of 85 elephants from 2015-16 to 2021-22. Kerala recorded the highest number of poaching incidents at 20 during this period, followed by Meghalaya and Odisha with 14 each, and Karnataka with 11. Other states such as Nagaland and Tamil Nadu reported 7 poaching-related elephant deaths each, while Assam reported 6 such incidents.

Further, poisoning has led to the death of 32 elephants between 2015-16 and 2021-22. A total of 24 out of these were reported from Assam alone while Kerala and Jharkhand reported 2 each. One each was reported from the states of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, and Odisha. 

20% of the global captive elephant population is in India

India also boasts the third-highest number of captive elephants, with nearly 2,700 representing 20% of the global captive elephant population. These captive elephants in India are kept in elephant camps and rescue centres managed by the Forest Department, in zoos, temples, circuses and owned by private individuals. 

Captive elephants in India are primarily used for tourism and entertainment purposes, including elephant rides, performances, and interactions with tourists. They also play a significant role in religious and cultural events, often paraded, and adorned during festivals. Some are employed for labour-intensive tasks like logging and carrying heavy loads, while others are part of conservation breeding programs and scientific research initiatives. Kumki elephants are trained elephants used for various conservation and human-wildlife conflict mitigation purposes.

63% of the captive elephants are in private custody

There are a total of 2675 captive elephants in the country as of January 2019 of which 63% are in private custody. About 25% of the elephant population remains in the custody of the Forest Department. Another 3% are housed in zoos and rehabilitation centres.

These captive elephants are found in 26 states and union territories, including the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Delhi, and Puducherry. Most of these elephants were located in the northeastern states. Assam reported the highest with 905 captive elephants, followed by Arunachal Pradesh with 109. Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Nagaland, and Meghalaya accounted for more than 41% of the captive elephants. 

Nearly 32% were in the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh. Kerala had a maximum of 518 captive elephants, followed by 184 in Karnataka and 138 in Tamil Nadu. 

Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and West Bengal had more than 100 elephants each.

Captive elephants are vulnerable to physical and psychological health issues

Captive elephants are vulnerable to physical and psychological challenges without proper care, leading to abnormal behaviours and reduced lifespan. They can also exhibit abnormal behaviours due to confinement and lack of stimulation. Social isolation is another significant issue, as elephants are highly social animals that require appropriate social interactions. In 2010, an Elephant Task Force report recommended a total ban on elephant ownership in the long run.  It also called for the strict implementation of the Wildlife Protection Act’s provisions. 

New rules have laxed and made transportation of captive elephant easier

Recently, the Central government notified Captive Elephant (Transfer or Transport) Rules, 2024. These new rules have relaxed provisions for transportation of the captive elephants and have been criticized by experts. The updated rules for transferring captive elephants allow for easier transfers under specific circumstances, such as when the current owner is unable to maintain the elephant or when better upkeep is deemed necessary by the Chief Wildlife Warden. These rules also streamline the process for interstate transfers by requiring permissions only from the originating and recipient states, along with certification of the elephant’s health and suitability of habitats. This is contrary to the recommendations of the 2010 report.

To sum up, the situation of elephants in India is complex and multifaceted, encompassing challenges in both wild and captive settings. While Indian elephants play a crucial role in maintaining biodiversity and ecological balance, they face significant threats such as habitat loss, poaching, human-wildlife conflicts, and other challenges in captivity. Amidst the global efforts to protect wildlife, the recent updates in rules regarding the transfer of captive elephants have raised concerns among experts. Efforts are required to prioritize the conservation and welfare of elephants, including stricter implementation of wildlife protection laws, promoting coexistence with humans, and ensuring humane care for captive elephants.


About Author

A bachelor’s degree in mathematics and master’s in social science, she is driven by ardent desire to work with this unique combination to create her own path instead of following the herd. Having served a stint as the college union chairperson, she is a strategist who is also passionate about nature conservation, art and loves solving Sudoku.

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