About the author
Thomas R. Trautmann an American historian, cultural anthropologist and Professor Emeritus of History and Anthropology at the University of Michigan. He is considered one of the world’s leading experts on the Arthashastra, the ancient Hindu text on statecraft, economic policy and military strategy, written in Sanskrit. While his most recent research concerns the emergence of the war elephant institution and deep history of the mahout in Ancient India, he has also written a number of books on Kinship and the history of India.

 The war elephant was invented in India, perhaps as long ago as 1000 BCE. In the land of its origin, a surprising legacy of the war elephant is that India today has more wild Asian elephants than any other country. How can that be? Surely, taking elephants from the wild to train them up for war, and exposing them to death on the battlefield, would have put a downward pressure upon their total numbers. Bear with me as I try to explain…

The invention of the war elephant occurred in North India during the late Vedic period and revolutionized warfare. Until that point, armies had three divisions: foot soldiers, horsemen, and chariots. When the war elephant was created so was an additional division, and the fourfold army became the standard for the ideal military force. Elephants were extremely prized for their ability to strike terror in the opposing army and to batter down gates of walled cities. Fourfold armies are routinely pictured in sculpted scenes set in the lifetime of the Buddha and the Mahavira. The empire of the Mauryan dynasty had such an army, and its great success in conquering most of India and beyond was due largely to its access to superior numbers of elephants.

The war elephant as an institution spread rapidly through India and beyond. It was taken up by the early kingdoms of the South, war elephants and fourfold armies being vividly depicted in the poetry of classical Tamil. It spread to the Hellenistic kingdoms in the Middle East, notably the Seleucids, who got their elephants from India,[i] and the Ptolemies of Egypt who used Indian elephant-men and techniques to capture and train African elephants for warfare. In Greek texts of the day, the elephant driver was called, simply, “the Indian”. Carthaginian generals such as Hannibal used war elephants against the Romans, and the Romans used them against the Gauls in Spain. And the kings of Southeast Asia who adopted Indian religions and royal practices, also took up the war elephant. Having access to an large quantity of forest-roaming elephants themselves, these kingdoms deployed them on the battlefield as recently as 1833.

But Southeast Asia, plus Yunnan in China, was as far east as the war elephant was used. We can say that the war elephant has a history of about three thousand years, and a geography that stretches from Spain to Indonesia, but not to China (except only Yunnan). This is even though China once had wild elephants in abundance. Chinese kings were pleased to display live elephants given to them as tribute but did not use them in warfare.

Wait—wild elephants in China? Yes! It is a little-known but well-established fact that wild elephants roamed over much of the country. Their ranging area included the south of China – which as part of “Monsoon Asia” has a landscape much like India, of humid deciduous forests, agreeable for elephants – but elephants were also found in much of northern China as well .

Asian Elephant: Current vs Historical range

Today, of the 50,000 or so Asian elephants still in existence, India has about 30,000. And China, in Yunnan Province, there are only about 300 – a mere one percent of the Indian total.

What is the connection of these population figures and the fact that Indian kings used war elephants, and Chinese kings did not? To begin to understand this connection we need to look at the historical human-elephant relationship in ancient India.

From the perspective of the king, wild elephants living in the forests were a military store for armies. Elephants are the largest living land animals, very expensive and labour intensive to feed and manage. Further, according to an ancient text on kingship, the Arthashastra, they do not reach their work potential until they are 20-year-old adults. Breeding an elephant population and maintaining them for twenty years until working age would be an expensive enterprise. So, until that point it was more practical to let elephants feed themselves in the wild, and then, one by one, capture and train them as adults and incorporate them into the king’s army

In regard to the historical population, there are many indications that elephants were much more plentiful in ancient India than today. For example, there were wild elephants in the Indus Valley, where they are no longer found, as we may judge from the very fine carved representations of elephants from the Indus Civilization. So, we know there was a shrinkage of the wild elephant population over time, and the catching wild elephants for war must have been partly responsible for that loss.

Yet, while the war elephant institution might have partly depleted elephant stocks, they also played a role in sustaining them. Because of their great military value, Indian kings maintained elephant forests, and put to death anyone hunting an elephant for food or ivory. Effectively, it became against the law to kill these animals, so that royal protection of wild elephants began to exert a positive effect upon overall population numbers, counterbalancing the downward pressure from the taking of elephants for war. Because the expansion of farming inevitably led to clashes between farmers and elephants, Indian kings had to find ways to protect both agriculture and wild elephants. (A surprisingly similar scenario to what we find in the 21st Century and the problems of human-elephant conflict).

We should also note that it had been the custom of Indian kings to hunt other animals from the backs of trained elephants, but not to hunt elephants except to capture them live. It was the British in the nineteenth century who introduced trophy hunting of elephants to India. This colonial practice expanded so rapidly and so imperiled the elephant population – one British hunter alone shot 1400 individuals – that it led to the reintroduction of legal curbs on elephant killing beginning in the late nineteenth century. Elephants were not fully protected from sport hunting until after Independence. Hunting likely dramatically diminished the pre-colonial elephant population.

Compared to India, in China, the royal unwillingness to adopt the war elephant meant there was no positive incentive to preserve these animals in the wild. Also, Chinese kingdom’s reliance upon expanding and maximizing agriculture to increase revenue gave kings a reason to clear the forests of wild animals. Elephants did not have an equivalent value between Indian and Chinese kings.

The steady retreat of wild elephants in China is well documented. Wild elephants in India have also retreated, especially from the Indus Valley, but relative to China and other Asian countries they have persisted to a significant degree. In this respect the environmental outcomes in India and China today are quite different, and wild elephant numbers are a measure of that difference.

The war elephant as an institution has come to an end, but it has left a surprisingly positive legacy. It is now up to governments to protect wild elephants against ivory poachers as Indian kings did in the past, and to manage and mitigate the inherent conflict between wild elephants and farmers.   Recent increases in numbers of wild elephants do suggest that India has had some success.

You will find more details in my book, Elephants and Kings: An environmental history, published by Permanent Black and the University of Chicago Press.

[i] The founder of the Mauryan empire, Chandragupta, gave Seleucus, successor to the eastern conquests of Alexander of Macedon, 500 elephants to seal a peace treaty by which Seleucus gave most of what is now Afghanistan to the Indian king. Seleucus used the elephants in his wars against other would-be successors of Alexander. The Mauryans continued to supply the Seleucids with trained war elephants for the better part of the next two centuries.