As a young British Imperial police officer in Moulmein, Burma, the narrator is routinely subjected to hateful stares, jeers, and insults. The Burmese people have an intense disdain for their British oppressors, but while the narrator internally agrees and sympathizes with them, he also knows that he has a job and a position to uphold for the time being.
The narrator is called about an elephant that has gone mad and has been showing aggressive behavior in the local bazaar. The Mahout, the trainer and caretaker of the elephant, had gone out searching for the elephant after it escaped, but he went in the wrong direction. The narrator takes a rifle and goes out in search of the elephant, but isn't sure what he will do when he finds it.
The narrator comes across the elephant who has just killed a native Dravidian coolie. The narrator sends someone for an elephant rifle and a crowd gathers. While the narrator initially sent for the rifle for defense, the gathering crowd follows him as he finds the elephant peacefully eating grass in the field. While the narrator knows the elephant is no longer a danger, the 2,000 people behind him want a show. If he simply walks away, he will look like a fool.
The narrator does not want to shoot the elephant. The elephant is an important and expensive possession, and the narrator sees no sense in killing him. But, his pride and his position as a white police officer makes him decide to shoot anyway. The narrator doesn't know how to shoot to kill an elephant, and the elephant falls to the ground in agony, but does not die.
The narrator continues to shoot the elephant in places where he thinks the death will come quickly, but he's not totally sure of the elephants anatomy. Several shots to his chest and head don't work. The elephant continues to suffer until finally the narrator has to walk away. The Burmans strip the dead elephant to the bones.
The narrator recounts the aftermath of the shooting. The owner was furious, but the owner was Indian so his opinion did not count for much. Because the elephant had killed the coolie man, the narrator was legally in the right for killing the elephant. One European mused that it was a shame to kill an elephant for killing a coolie, because the elephant is worth more financially. The narrator knows he did it because he didn't want to look like a fool.