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Sculpture in temple wall in Mysore, India
The use of elephants features frequently in art in several south Asian countries. This is a detail of a wall of a temple in Mysore, India.

Tourist family and elephants
Across South and South-East Asia today, many continue to seek contact with elephants. One way to continue the heritage of connection would be to establish sanctuary-type facilities, in which visitors could watch large, semi-natural enclosures with groups of elephants that have been retired from tourism, circuses and other uses. That would provide a richer experience for both parties, as compared to the setting pictured above.

Chandra Tamang training
Chandra Tamang, the head mahout at Bardia National Park in Nepal, has been one of the most active mahouts in Nepal in applying elephant-friendly training skills shared by our programme. According to many mahouts, these new skills fit traditional values better than the ordinary pain- and injury-based system.

Elephant grazing with mahout
A relaxed relationship between a mahout and elephant with a long history together: the mahout takes a nap while allowing the elephant to graze.
Culture and society

Elephants have had and continue to have an important role in the culture across South Asia. While their uses have changed during the millennia - from war and construction to present-day tourist rides - a wide variety of elephant uses continues today.

Cultural and religious significance

The sacred texts and teachings of Islam, as well as those of Buddhists and Hindus, each contain aspects referring to elephants. In Buddhism, the elephant symbolises mental strength and responsibility. The Quran recounts how a war elephant called Mahmud refused to enter Mecca and prevented it from being conquered, which is why the year when the Prophet Muhammad was born is known as the Year of the Elephant.

Among Hindus, the elephant-headed god Ganesha is one of the most cherished gods. In the Western world, this is sometimes interpreted as if elephants are worshipped. Actually the reverence is for the god, and living elephants could be decribed as one of the tools for getting closer to the deity. But as in any faith, there is diversity among devotees, and some revere elephants more directly. For example in India, some members of the public have explained in televised discussions that seeing people sitting on elephants is offending to their religious feelings. To this day, the special bond with elephants still has great significance.

Uses from history to today

The uses of captive elephants in Asia have changed over time. In past centuries and millennia, the most common reasons for keeping captive elephants were transportation, logging, construction of temples and other large buildings, and war.

Today, logging is the only one of these that still involves thousands of elephants. There also are several hundreds of elephants in temples.

Tourism has become a new major user of elephants. Today, tourism is the most common reason for keeping captive elephants in many countries. This now also extends beyond Asia: elephantback safaris for tourists are operating in several African countries. Other new uses, such as anti-poaching patrolling, have also emerged in South Asia during the past century.

World views and elephant handling

While today's captive elephants in Asia are largely used for different purposes than those in the history, the systems of training, handling and management are mostly still the same as those described in Indian scripts thousands of years ago. Training involves punishing with sharp weapons, and the most common way of keeping elephants outside work hours is in short chains without an opportunity to touch other elephants.

Depending on the country, mahouts usually come from either Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim communities. Compassion is one of the core values in each of these faiths and world views. Many of them feel troubled when they are taught they have to inflict pain and injury on the elephants. The reason why they do it is that they believe it is the only possible way.

The experience of us and others who share skills in elephant-friendly methods has shown that when offered constructive collaboration, Asian mahouts typically respond with a warm welcome. During our programme in Nepal, we have been told by several senior mahouts how good they feel now that they can train and handle elephants without hurting them. It seems that elephant-friendly training actually fits their core values better than the pain-based system.

The reason why the pain-based system has endured so long, and still is the prevailing system for most of the captive elephants, appears to be mainly socio-economic. Because the pain-based system makes elephants aggressive, being a mahout has been a dangerous occupation througout millennia. Therefore, it is usually designated to groups with a low socio-economic status. Even if these people wish there were some other way to handle elephants, they do not have the opportunity to travel internationally and learn of the existence of other systems. This is why the approach we started developing in 2005 - bringing international experts to interact with mahouts on their own premises - has been welcomed so enthusiastically: it helps mahouts develop their skills in a way that is in accordance with core values of their own faiths.

Restoring the traditional mahout-elephant bond

Together with the improvements in diagnostics and care that have become possible thanks to advances in elephant veterinary medicine, the new available knowledge has remarkable potential to provide fruitful contributions to the long tradition of elephant-keeping in South Asian cultures.

One of the potential future benefits can be a renewal of the traditional mahout-elephant relationship. In the past, a mahout and an elephant often had a lifelong bond. Today, many elephant facilities have to frequently hire new mahouts, as previous ones often leave the dangerous and unappreciated job as soon as they can. This is problematic for both mahouts and elephants. Mahouts often come from other types of work with limited experience of elephants, and struggle when trying to dominate the animal they do not understand very well. Elephants form very strong social bonds, so the elephant is disturbed by the loss of the familar mahout, while trying to cope with the new one, who in many cases is unnecessarily abusive when insecure and trying to assert his dominance.

When the handling, living environment and healthcare are planned by including the best available modern knowledge, the dangers of being a mahout are greatly reduced, as these advances arkedly reduce elephant aggression. When the public sees elephants handled without pain and living in spacious enclosures instead of standing in short chains, the public image of elephant keeping and being a mahout is also significantly improved. This is expected to make being the mahout more attractive than it is today, resulting in mahouts staying in their jobs for longer and thus restoring the traditional long-term bond between a mahout and an elephant.

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