Abstract Few empirical studies have described social‐ecological systems (SESs) in transition. Some studies focused on external drivers that impact the SES and communities' responses to adapt to changes, including economic, land and conservation policies. Others have considered the effect of social and cultural changes on communities' capacity to sustain their activities. While sociocultural changes are increasingly common through globalization and world‐wide economic development, there is an urgent need to better understand and document how these changes affect individual and community agency to adapt or transform a system that is facing a combination of powerful internal and external forces. The human–Asian elephant relationship appears particularly illustrative of a complex SES because of the dual status of the elephant being wild or under human care, and the entanglement of ecological, cultural, social and economic dimensions. The ongoing and rapid political, socio‐economic and environmental changes occurring in Laos for the last decades have strongly affected this relationship. We conducted an ethnological survey to assess how the SES has evolved in Laos and its consequences for human‐wild‐captive elephant interactions and elephant handling practices. We show that in the 1990s, the SES was based on the principles of common access to natural resources and social control over nature and spirits, and led to a form of elephant handling with close interactions between captive and wild elephants. Husbandry practices then could be likened to pastoralism as a mode of production associated with a mode of relation close to seasonal freedom. Since the turn of the present century, the commodification of nature and of increasingly divided access to natural resources led eventually to the segregation of wild elephants and captivity of their working conspecifics. With the intensification of workload, owners switched to a ranching‐like economy, based on the accumulation of monetary capital from the employment of elephants in logging or tourism. We discuss how the combination of external drivers, such as economic liberalization, land and conservation policies, and internal drivers linked to sociocultural changes could affect a SES in transition, leading to a fading interest of the new generation in their family heritage. A free Plain Language Summary can be found within the Supporting Information of this article.