Domestication of otherwise wild animals go way back. Cats have been our best weapons against rodents for 10,000 years. We had been breeding sheep and goats for their milk and mutton for almost as long. The date of dog domestication is...debatable, to say the least.

And then there are animals we thought we domesticated but, in reality, not completely. Among them is the elephant. In truth, we never really domesticated them, but instead captured them from the wild.

There are three extant species of elephant--the Asian, the African Forest and the largest of all the terrestrial mammals, the African Bush. Because people from places like India and Thailand put major emphasis of elephant imagery in their cultures, only the Asiatic had been habituated to serve humans. (Habituated, not full-on domesticated--there are differences.)

But let's say that we had spent thousands of years domesticating all three species of elephants, including the Africans. Would their meat and milk be good to eat, or would we breed them only for their size and their ivory? And would an army of domesticated African Elephants help the Egyptian laborers speed up the construction of megastructures, like the Pyramids?

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    $\begingroup$ I'd guesstimate "no" on the pyramids, feeding a herd of elephants would reduce the amount of human labourers you can support and for the Egyptians the humans would probably have been more valuable as they would have been able to produce food and perform other labour in addition to moving stones. Or more importantly to move stones essentially for free when not needed for food production. Just a guess, though. $\endgroup$ Jun 25, 2016 at 5:07
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    $\begingroup$ Very few animals are fit for domestication. The following video lists the qualities needed. And the bigger and stronger the animal is, the more important these qualities become. youtube.com/watch?v=wOmjnioNulo $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Jun 25, 2016 at 12:26
  • $\begingroup$ I would like to point out that the video I linked to above specifically mentions why Elephants suck for domestication and can only be tamed. :) $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Jun 25, 2016 at 14:41
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKarnerfors sooo nice video) - and fully answers OP Q actually by my opinion. We are top chicken)) $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jun 25, 2016 at 16:14

3 Answers 3


I think the main problems with domesticating elephants 'properly' are:

You cannot castrate the bulls. This removes one of mankind's major ways of making dangerous animals more docile, and makes controlling which bull elephant mates with a female more problematic, which messes up breeding programmes. The reason you can't castrate a bull elephant is that they keep their testicles inside the body, roughly where a human keeps their kidneys. So to castrate one, your human society first has to invent anaesthetic, major surgery, antibiotics, etc and to be able to cope with an elephant recovering from major surgery.

Male elephants go into musth. This is a 'male on heat' phenomenon which makes the male even more dangerous than normal for something that weighs several tons and could crush you like a bug. Males in musth want to start fights with other bulls, smash things and get laid. The aggression in domestic Asian elephants is sometimes so high in young bulls that they attack the females instead of mating with them. (This might be because humans have messed stuff up - young wild bulls go into musth less often, because older bulls can somehow suppress them).

Elephants are really smart. If you are killing their herd mates for meat and ivory, they are going to figure this out and not be happy about it. And a pissed off elephant is not to be taken lightly! Wild African elephants have figured out how to tell the difference between human ethnic groups who hunt them and those who don't by smell and by the language the humans speak.

Elephants can communicate by infrasound over miles. If you do want to kill an elephant for meat/ivory, you'll have to take it at least 5 miles away from its herd or they'll be able to 'listen in'. The primitive humans who first try to domesticate elephants will have no clue about infrasound - they'll just know the rest of the herd a mile down the road suddenly went berserk.

So your domestic elephants need to be more of a partnership than humans have with sheep or cattle. And no elephant meat on the menu!


I really like this question. I think the idea of long term breeding of various animals is fascinating and picturing scenarios where elephants (or any animal, really) are bred over thousands of years into as many different breeds as there currently are of dogs. Really inspires some great imagery. So here goes:

Meat and Milk Totally reasonable to assume that their meat and milk would be good to taste as even cows and chickens were bred fatty and meaty to taste good. The question would be how efficient it is to raise elephants as livestock when you consider how much water and feed they'd need to raise to full maturity. Also the other major concern would be how dangerous breeding elephants is vs raising the much more manageable cows/chickens/horses/dogs/cats. But I'll get to that later.

Labor and Size I figure this is a slightly more realistic option especially once you got to the point of having bred them to be fit and muscled but somewhat less costly resource-wise. Think of the mule, carries a larger percent of their body weight than the donkey but with better endurance than the horse. And in battle, war elephants (particularly well-bred elephants) would be extremely effective up until well into the Renaissance.

Just Ivory I'd say when combined with the previous two benefits, this would just be an added bonus, sheep's wool or leather seem far more practical to human societies for clothing and furniture than ivory does. But it would certainly have an impact on cultural fashion and maybe architecture. And again, imagine the elephants bred specifically for their tusks (extremely, even obscenely large tusks, purely for harvest. seems like it could get to the point of cruelty).

Complications Elephants are dangerous. Far more so than at the very least sheeps/goats/pigs, and likely even more dangerous than wild dogs/cats/horses. That combined with the magnitude of resources they'd consume would probably outweigh the benefits. However, it's very possible this wouldn't be an issue. I mean, it's probably fair to say that in hindsight, humans (if given a choice) may not have chosen dogs as a best friend. Elephants aren't "the wrong choice" they'd just be a different choice. And given a different set of circumstances, i could see just about any mammal becoming man's best friend. Could be for religious reasons, or simply just convenience and happenstance.


Elephants don't have great resistance due to their lack of fat , in fact most elephants are underweight, they just have big stomaches to digest anything from dirt to mud or non nutrious dead grass.

And they spend a lot of time eating , they eat way more than humans so it would be ineficient to breed them since the only reason we started to breed animals in the first time is because they eat our same food and they don't require much attention ... exactly the opposite of an Elephant


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