Teach me tenderly

Posted on 17 December 2007

The Elephant Training Workshop at the Elephant Breeding Centre at Khorsor, Chitwan, brought forth a new advancement in elephant training combining Nepali mahouts’ vast experience and long tradition in working with elephants, and the foreign experts’ expertise in the scientific knowledge on best ways to promote learning in animals.

The sun was about to set. Although the day was coming to an end, the ticket selling counter at the Elephant Breeding Centre, Khorsor was packed with visitors. Crossing the counter, to me the sight of the huge stable was astounding – giant elephants were tethered to wooden posts with iron shackles. The mammoth animals looked helpless and pitiable. Even older baby elephants were tethered in similar fashion. As I neared the iron bar, a cute baby elephant lunged towards me. It crossed the fence and chased me. Immediately another elephant calf, a little older than the one chasing me, came to take back the younger elephant. However, it got hold of the orange I was carrying and ran back to the stable along with its brother (on asking the mahouts I came to know about their relationship). Nearing its mother, it threw the orange on the ground and peeled it with its foot and ate the contents inside. They are such an intelligent creature!

End of innocence
The baby elephants amuse the visitors at the stable with their playfulness and mischief. However, as they grow older they are taught to behave properly. On reaching two years of age, the elephants are trained to obey the mahout’s commands.

Initially the young elephant is separated from its mother for few days. It cries and laments in agony of separation and becomes desperate. Two men each on two elephants with the fifth man on the distressed calf go for long rides – the calf is made to run, go up, come down, jump and do all sort of activities as commanded by the rider.

“When the calf is tired and desperate, then the real training starts with the mahout teaching the jumbo language with the help of bamboo sticks hurting on the back of the ears and shoulders,” says Vikram Mahato who has been training elephants for the past 34 years. “In the process, the baby elephant gets angry and tries to throw away the rider. Sometimes the trainer gets hurt, ends up with broken neck and fractured limbs.”

The trainee elephant is tethered in between the two other elephants with the help of strong rope while it learns to respond to the basic commands of moving forwards, backwards, to the left and right, sitting, standing, stopping and grabbing.

After two weeks the elephant learns to be ridden by the trainer without the assistance of other elephants.

Teaching with reward and appreciation
Contrary to the traditional painful training, three young elephants from Khorsor received some basic training through Positive Learning Method, and all three proceeded quickly in their learning. The young elephants were Saraswati Kali and Kush Prasad, who were habituated to calmly accept a mahout sitting on them and to respond correctly to the signals for forward, backward, stop, turn etc. A younger, as yet unnamed calf of one year of age was not ridden yet, but was habituated to calmly accept handling and to understand the same signals that will later on be used when riding.

The Elephant Training Workshop at the Elephant Breeding Centre at Khorsor, Chitwan on 11 to 14 December 2007 was carried out under the guidance of Dr. Andrew McLean from Australia, who is an internationally highly recognized expert in the science of animal training, Tuikku Kaimio from Finland, who also conducted the previous year’s workshop, and scientist Marc Pierard from Belgium, who led the foreign team.

The Positive Learning Method promotes elephants’ willingness to cooperate with people. It is a combination of two scientific approaches in animal training –positive reinforcement (rewarding the elephant for correct actions) and pressure release (guiding the elephant with as little force as possible and releasing the pressure immediately when the elephant performs the correct action).

“As soon as the elephant performs the right action, it should be rewarded with kuchis – food packages for elephants,” says Dr. Andrew McLean. “The elephant is then sure about what it performed.”

In this training method, the trainer avoids inflicting any pain or fear to the elephant. Training elephants in this way makes the training sessions a pleasant experience for both the trainers and the elephant. The other benefits are fast learning – in this way, elephants learn the tasks faster than with any other training method – as well as increased reliability and safety of elephants at work. “Elephants trained this way will have less behaviour problem and will be more obedient,” says Marc Pierard.

Waiting for results
According to Dr. Kamal Gairhe, the top expert in elephant veterinary medicine in Nepal, the positive learning method can’t be compared with the traditional method of training.

“We have the results of traditional training method at hand but we still need to wait for the positive learning method’s results and its effectiveness,” says Dr. Gairhe.

However, Tuikku Kaimio is confident about the success of the scientific training.
“They (mahouts) have already applied some of the techniques that we taught during last year’s training,” says Tuikku. “If they use their traditional methods combined with scientific knowledge, we will be glad, because they are the experts of elephant training.”

The officers think that the new method is more humane than the traditional training and it will avoid the risks of mahouts being killed by elephants. “When an elephant gets insane, it searches the mahout who had treated it badly and tortured during the training,” says Gangaram Singh, Project Manager, Terai Arc Landscape Program. “In the past there have been several incidents when the mad and angry elephant killed the mahout ruthlessly.”

Beginning of a new era
Next day I attended the workshop on management of health of elephants. In this workshop, knowledge about handling of elephants at work in order to further promote reliability and safety of elephants, about various possibilities in the design of equipment, about ways to promote elephant health, and about elephants’ role in conservation, was shared. While the participants discussed the issues, I could see a group of baby elephants busy playing football on a ground nearby – of course they were being ridden by young mahouts.

The elephants seemed to follow each and every command of the mahouts and were trying to kick the ball past the goal posts. I was amazed to see the camaraderie between the elephants and the riders. The sun was again about to set but the sight looked like beginning of a new era. People were gathered to see the elephants play and practise for the upcoming elephant football match. They were clapping and at a distance Tuikku looked more than satisfied.

The combination of Nepali mahouts’ vast experience and long tradition in working with elephants, and the foreign experts’ expertise in the scientific knowledge on best ways to promote learning in animals is a new advancement in elephant training. She is confident that it will attract positive international interest and Nepal will be an example to the countries around the world.

End Notes:

Jumbo language
The mahouts use vocal commands along with pressure to train the young elephants.
“Agat” – move forwards
“Chhau” – move backwards
“Sut” – sleep
“Mail” – stand
“Baith” – sit
“Emhar” – turn
“Leh” – grab

Three men in a job
To handle an elephant three men are employed – Phanet, Mahout, and Pachhuwa. Phanet is the main handler of elephant. He takes proper care of the elephant and keeps it in hygienic condition and drives the elephant during formal occasions. Mahout cleans the hattisar, cooks the food and cleans the utensils. He also assists in feeding and bathing the elephant. Pachhuwa collects fodder and assists the Phanet in keeping the elephant in hygienic condition. He also assists the Phanet by standing on the back of elephant on special occasions.

For more information:

Sanjib K. Chaudhary, WWF Nepal +977 1 4434820


Dr. Andrew McLean and Tuikku Kaimio attend a baby elephant
© Minna Tallberg
Playful baby elephants
© WWF Nepal/ Sanjib K. CHAUDHARY
Proud Phanet Avadh poses with his elephant Komalkali
© WWF Nepal/ Sanjib K. CHAUDHARY
Elephant calves vying for the ball
© WWF Nepal/ Sanjib K. CHAUDHARY