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Thailand's current population of domesticated elephants is about 2,700. After a precipitous decline from about 100,000 domesticated elephants in 1850, numbers are now stable. About 95% of Thai elephants are in private ownership, with the Thai Elephant Conservation Center's 80 elephants being Thailand's only government-owned elephants apart from a few in zoos and the King's ten revered 'white' elephants in the Royal Elephant Stable.

Wild elephants in Thailand are very difficult to count given their dense, forested habitat, but most experts would agree there are between 2,000-3,000.

In 1989 the Thai government banned all logging in protected areas, effectively closing all remaining natural forests. While undoubtedly a very wise choice, one unfortunate side effect was that it threw many logging elephants out of work. Luckily, that loss coincided with a rapid rise in tourism, which was able to employ many elephants. Today, probably more than half of Thai elephants work in tourism.

Disturbingly, some overseas animal rights groups have argued that tourists should not visit elephant camps, claiming it promotes cruelty. In fact, most Thai elephants are very well cared for, partly because most Thai people are intrinsically kind and humane but also because elephants are simply too valuable to abuse. (A beautiful calf or a healthy, young breeding female is worth as much as 700,000 baht or US$22,000.) Although the camp to be visited should be carefully selected, the kindest thing that ethical, elephant-loving tourists can do is to visit a camp and enjoy elephants. Without work in tourism, elephant owners will have no means to care for their animals.

The use of the term 'domesticated' elephants, although it is the most common description, is a bit confusing because it can be misinterpreted to imply that (like domesticated dogs, cats, horses, water buffalo, etc.) these captive elephants are a different strain from wild elephants. The fact is that nowhere in Asia has the elephant ever been selectively bred, the process required to bring rapid genetic change to wild species. Thus, both behaviorally and genetically, so-called domesticated elephants are in reality captive wild elephants, virtually the same as their wild cousins roaming protected areas.

The kinship is important because the wild Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) is a fully protected Endangered Species. Given the fact that many if not most domesticated elephants would survive quite well if released into the wild, the so-called domesticated elephant holds enormous potential in the conservation of its wild kin.

A very good overview is the Thailand chapter in Gone Astray: The Care and Management of the Asian Elephant in Domesticity, which is available for download.

Problems in modern care are discussed at

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