The Tragedy of Captivity – People and Elephants

The tragic death of wildlife ranger Joe Fred Lansou deeply saddens the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP). Incidents like this are a testament to how challenging it is to manage elephants in captive environments.  It is unclear what triggers a sudden elephant attack or why incidents like this occur.

On 25 December 2022, Lansou was gored to death by a captive adult elephant while he was treating an injured elephant calf at the Lok Kawi Wildlife Park in Sabah.

It is not uncommon for mahouts (elephant riders, trainers, or keepers) and elephant caregivers to be killed by their captive elephants.  Perhaps the most common reason for such deaths is musth in matured bull elephants, a periodic phase with heightened aggression when people are less able to predict elephant behaviour but in this particular case, there was no mention of musth in the media.

Elephants attacking handlers is certainly not rare.  Elephants become aggressive toward humans when villages and farmlands destroy their natural habitat. In retaliation, humans either killed or captured the elephants and this is the time when the gentle giants pose a risk to public safety.

When elephants are kept captive they are prone to become neurotic, unhealthy, depressed, and aggressive because it is difficult to satisfy their ecological and behavioural needs. Moreover, elephants need space in the wild to escape from the aggression of other elephants and also to manage aggression.

Good welfare standards require elephants to be housed in environments that replicate natural conditions.   Unfortunately, few can afford such conditions and poor standards are the norm thereby enhancing the problem of elephant aggression in captivity.

Chaining elephants is harmful to their health and wellbeing. Chains impose extreme restrictions on elephants and over time, increase foot problems due to the buildup of urine and faeces in the area where they are chained.  Moreover, captive elephants are almost always kept in conditions that take a toll on their physical and mental health. As a result, captive elephants often resort to neurotic behaviours such as swaying and head bobbing.

Given that aggressive captive elephants are a public concern, CAP urges a thorough inquiry into the death of Joe Fred Lansou.  Any proper investigation must include experts in elephant behaviour, conservationists, wildlife welfarists, and zoologists. Only with the help of such experts can we gain a better understanding of captive elephants, their needs, and how best to prevent future deaths caused by captive elephants.



Mohideen Abdul Kader
Consumers Association of Penang (CAP)

Letter to the Editor, 2 February 2023