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Mahout and patrolling elephant returning from branch-cutting
A mahout and a patrollign male return from the daily chore of branch-cutting in Chitwan National Park, Nepal. The branches are used as elephant feed. The axe is used for cutting the branches. Some of those mahouts who still operate under the old punishment-based system of elephant handling, also use the axe in controlling the elephant.

Burning dung at an elephant camp
While not at work, the patrolling elephants are usually kept chained, in many cases by immobilizing both front legs, which is risky for long-term health.

Wild male mating a captive female
A wild male mating with a captive female at the Elephant Breeding Centre in Chitwan, Nepal. In this government-owned centre, elephants are bred in captivity for the aim of training the offspring for patrolling national parks.
Anti-poaching and conflict mitigation

Captive elephants are used in wildlife conservation in several Asian countries. The uses vary from monitoring and patrolling to actively arresting illegal hunters and chasing wild elephants away from fields and villages.

Patrolling for wildlife crime

In some countries such as India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, one of the uses of captive elephants is in patrolling national parks and other conservation areas. Poaching (illegal hunting, fishing and felling of timber) is a common and in some occasions growing problem in these protected areas. It affects a range of species, including endangered ones, especially tigers and Indian rhinos. Poaching is a complex problem, in which one of the necessary solutions is to reduce the lucrative market for illegally traded rhino horns and tiger body parts, but patrolling on the ground is also needed.

The role of these elephants is a combination of police dogs and police horses. They are used as all-terrain vehicles while patrolling, and commanded to perform mock attacks at poachers during arrests. For example in Nepal, the approximately 100 patrolling elephants constitute a half of the total captive elephant population of the country, and their number is growing.

In addition to direct law enforcement, these elephants are also used as the means of transport in regular monitoring and research inside the protected areas; in population counts, radio-collaring and translocations of animals such as tigers and rhinos; and in rescue missions, e.g. when a jeep or a rhino has been stuck in mud during the monsoon season.

Mitigating human-elephant conflict

The term human-elephant conflict refers to the tragic situations when wild elephants have learned to enter fields and villages to search for foods such as rice, fruit or alcohol. In additon to lost food and income and damaged buildings, some cases have also involved lost human lives. One of the reasons for the conflict is deforestation and the expansion of human settlements to areas that used to be elephant territory. Another important reason is that foods rich in carbohydrates are attractive to elephants, and the wild elephants have simply learned to visit these "candy stores" with tragic consequences.

In some countries such as India, one of the current approaches is to use captive elephants called koonkies, ridden by local patrols, to chase away wild elephants from fields. As the human-elephant conflict is still on the increase, so is the use of captive elephants in countering it. For example in Indonesia, keeping of elephants in captivity has been re-started during the past decades, mainly for the purpose of human-elephant conflict management.

Many other approaches have also been tried. One of the most effective ones appear to be sturdy, well-maintained electric fences with a ditch as additional protection on the outside. As elephants easily learn to fell trees onto electric fences, short-circuiting them and rendering them harmless, it is essential to clear all trees within the distance of the trees' height outside the fence. Some elephants also learn to fill ditches by pushing the removed earth back in, so it is necessary to store the earth on the field side of the ditch, not the forest side where it is accessible. Large-scale planning of land use can also help in some cases: the fewest elephant conflicts are seen in areas with large continuous fields, as opposed to fields fragmented with strips of forest. Other means, such as the sound of bees or surrounding the field with chilli, work for some time, but often elephants get used to these.

Human-elephant conflict is still far from solved, but new solutions are being developed. One of the most promising, developed by Save the Elephants in Africa, utilizes GPS collars on wild elephants and the local cell phone network. Real-time information on elephant movements can be used for many purposes, such as protecting wild elephants from poaching by monitoring their movements. It also makes it possible to have an automated early warning system, informing designated contact persons in villages about approaching elephants in time, so that a patrol can be sent to deter them.

Copyright © Elephant Experts 2014-2016
Photo copyright © Elephant Experts and the photographers:
Minna Tallberg, Helena Telkänranta, Marc Pierard, Karpagam Chelliah,
Nirvay Sah, Sudhir Yadav and Ramesh Belagere