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Vol 5 No 3 (2018): Zoonosis: Prospects and challenges for medical anthropology

Elephant tuberculosis as a reverse zoonosis: Postcolonial scenes of compassion, conservation, and public health in Laos and France

  • Nicolas Lainé
March 17, 2016
June 25, 2018


In the last twenty years, a growing number of captive elephants have tested positive for tuberculosis (TB) in various institutions worldwide, causing public health concerns. This article discusses two localities where this concern has produced significant mobilizations to ask about the postcolonial resonances of this global response. The first case focuses on epidemiological studies of elephant TB in Laos launched by international organizations involved in conservation, and on the role of traditional elephant workers (mahouts) in the daily care for elephants. The second describes the finding by veterinarians of two elephants suspected of TB infection in a French zoo and the mobilization of animal rights activists against the euthanasia of the pachyderms. The article shows that while, in the recent past, in France elephants were considered markers of exoticism and in Laos as coworkers in the timber industry, they are now considered to be endangered subjects in need of care, compassion, and conservation. This analysis contributes to the anthropology of relations between humans and elephants through the study of a rare but fascinating zoonosis.