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One of our training sessions in progress.
The discussions on elephant behaviour and health lead to an increased appreciation of e.g. elephants' need for social interaction by touch.
The elephant training part in our workshops consists of alternating practical sessions...
...and of frequent breaks, during which the content of the practical sessions is further explained and discussed.
Above left: Dr. Chandra Gurung, the then CEO of WWF Nepal, photographed in 2005 at around the time when the planning of the programme began. Above right: Helena Telkanranta, who developed the novel idea, working on the beginnings of the programme in 2006.
The first meeting for elephant owners, government officials and senior mahouts in Chitwan, Nepal in April 2006, organized by WWF Nepal.
Above left: Bhaggu Tharu was the most respected mahout of his time in Nepal, and one of those who warmly welcomed the new training system. Above right: Buddhan Chaudhary, the head of the Koshi Tappu elephant camp (left) and Rameshwor Chaudhary, the head of the Elephant Breeding Centre (right), at our workshop in 2007 in Chitwan.
Our first workshop at the Elephant Breeding Centre of Chitwan in 2006. Trainer Tuire Kaimio (in the white shirt) is explaining positive reinforcement to the participating mahouts.
Above left: Purna Kunwar of WWF Nepal, carried out most of the arrangements of our first workshops. Above centre: Ranjana Pajiyar translated for us and assisted in arrangements in several workshops. Above right: Shree Narayan was one of the mahouts participating in our first workshops in 2006 and 2007.
In the Bardia pilot project from 2009 to 2010, Chandra Tamang, the head of the Bardia Hattisar (in the brown shirt), and Laurie Pond of Australia Zoo (on the right) were among the key people.
The programme continues to be led by its original developer, Helena Telkanranta. In this photo, she shares a relaxing break with one-year-old Kumar Gaj during a workshop in Bardia.
Prevailing management issues, such as this practice of keeping front legs hobbled unnaturally close to each other and risking joint health, is one of the topics we bring up in discussions in a constructive, solution-seeking manner.
Our mode of working is to take the workshops to locations as easy as possible for the mahouts to reach. In some cases, there are lecture halls nearby, such as this lecture hall of the National Trust of Nature Conservation in the village of Sauraha....
...and in more remote locations, mahouts have been eager to construct lecture facilities from what is available. In this photo, mahouts of the Elephant Breeding Centre are covering open walls in order to have enough darkness for a video and PowerPoint show.
Videos of wild elephant behaviour, filmed by researcher Karpagam Chelliah from the Indian Institute of Science and shown by her in person in our workshops, have been highly popular among the mahouts. They give mahouts fresh "aha" moments on the reasons of their own elephants' behaviour.
In disseminating knowledge on elephant health, we collaborate with Elephant Care International, which is a non-profit run by veterinarians specializing in elephant healthcare. In this photo, Dr. Suraj Subedi of the NTNC in Nepal and Dr. Susan Mikota of Elephant Care are taking a blood sample to test for tuberculosis.
Our programme in Nepal, started in 2005 together with WWF, was the first initiative to develop a vocational training system for Asian mahouts on positive reinforcement in elephant training and on health-improving management practices.
The programme in a nutshell
We have shown the feasibility of building the basis for a system of vocational education for all mahouts in Nepal, in order to give them access to the best available knowledge on captive elephant management and training. This has powerful potential in significantly improving the well-being and safety of elephants and the people working with them.
The topics covered include e.g. the following: training and handling elephants with improved efficiency by positive reinforcement and other elephant-friendly techniques; improving elephant health by modifying equipment and management practices; prevention, detection and care of the most common diseases; and understanding the natural behaviour and needs of elephants.
Our approach is based on constructive collaboration with a variety of stakeholders, such as mahouts, government officials, elephant owners, veterinarians and NGO's. It has been met with warm welcome and excellent collaboration by all of them.
So far, we have organized a series of workshops for mahouts, providing an opportunity for them to interact directly with international experts. The workshops have been conducted on the mahouts' own workplaces, using their own elephants in the practical sessions. The invited speakers have included elephant trainers, veterinarians and scientists from both the West and the East. The latter have included Indian and Thai experts and, in the case of veterinarians, also those from Nepal itself.
We have also collaborated with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC, the government body in Nepal responsible for elephants) on a pilot project, in which all the young elephants in training in Bardia National Park, which has the second elephant camp in Nepal, were trained with our supervision, so that the government authorities could assess whether the new elephant-friendly training techniques result in elephants working as reliably as those trained by "breaking the will". When evaluating the outcome, the government authorities found that the elephants trained under the new system learned remarkably faster and worked with better precision than those in the old system. As a result, DNPWC asked us to extend our education to cover all mahouts in Nepal, and to design a plan on how to transform all of the elephant management and training in Nepal within the next decade into a modern, elephant-friendly system.
For the first years, the Nepal programme was run as a part of the integrated development and cooperation activities of WWF Nepal and WWF Finland, co-funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland and WSPA (currently World Animal Protection). As the programme expanded, it was agreed that it will need an organization of its own, to ensure long-term continuity and to answer to the requests that we had started to get from other countries to start similar programmes there. This led to foundign a non-profit called Working Elephant Programme of Asia (WEPA); later the name was changed to Elephant Experts.
From the beginning, one of the aims of developing the programme was to gain experience that would be useful in developing and supporting similar changes elsewhere. We have received requests from several south Asian countries to start similar programmes there, and we are preparing to start making ourselves available elsewhere too in the near future.
The history of the programme: how did it get started?
The idea was first developed by Helena Telkanranta in 2005, when she was working for an integrated development and conservation programme of WWF Nepal and WWF Finland (two offices of World Wide Fund for Nature, also known as World Wildlife Fund) in Nepal. Her work occasionally involved free time with national park staff and mahouts around their campfires, and she took the opportunity to chat with them, among other things, about training of the captive elephants used in conservation areas. She was aware of the problems before, and during those campfire chats she discovered that painful handling of elephants was not only a concern for outsiders: several of these people themselves felt sorry about the way elephants were treated, but did not know of any other way. She started thinking about the possibility of a novel programme: international experts in elephant-friendly training and management would visit Nepali mahouts, making available their skills in constructive collaboration.
She proposed this idea to the CEO of WWF Nepal, Dr. Chandra Gurung, who liked the idea and was eager to start collaborating in developing it. Funding for the first years to get it started was provided by WWF Finland, by the development cooperation section of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland and by WSPA, the largest animal welfare organization of the world (currently called World Animal Protection). While Helena was back in Europe arranging the funding, the staff of WWF Nepal started to develop the relationships with the mahouts in the field. Santosh Nepal of the WWF office carried out a series of conversations with senior mahouts, supplied with information from Helena and frequently emailing her back with the mahouts' questions. After the senior mahouts had got answers to all their queries, and after support for the information exchange was given by senior government officials such as the recently retired Director General of DNPWC, Dr. Tirtha Maskey, we were invited to start interaction at the Elephant Breeding Centre of Chitwan, a large camp at which the majority of elephant calves in Nepal are trained.
Based on her prior experience in developing collaborative win-win projects in animal welfare and conservation, and on her prior experience of cross-cultural work in countries such as Malawi in Africa, Helena decided on a series of cornerstones for the programme right from the beginning. One of them is respect for the local culture and customs, coupled with an interest in in-depth learning about the ways and thinking of the local mahouts. Another is a constructive, non-criticizing approach. Thirdly, the information to disseminate has to represent the best available current knowledge, based on science or long professional experience, in may cases both. Collaborative work is also key: the activities are planned together with local partners, a network of various stakeholders are involved, and any new activities are undertaken only at a stage when genuinely wanted by the involved local partners.
The first interaction in Chitwan, in April 2006, focused on introducing the basics of positive reinforcement in training. Helena invited Tuie Kaimio, a professional animal trainer from Finland, to show how to use positive reinforcement in training one of the calves at the Elephant Breeding Centre, a previously untrained oone-year-old. Purna Kunwar of WWF Nepal carried out the practical arrangements, and Ranjana Pajiyar translated to the Tharu language, the native tongue of almost all mahouts in Nepal. A total of 30 mahouts from several government and private elephant camps attended, including head mahouts and retired mahouts; the latter have an important role in Nepal in supervising the training of calves. The workshop was a resounding success, and the head mahouts asked Helena to bring her team to Nepal again for a longer time so they could learn more.
In September 2006, there was a tragedy that interrupted our programme and many other activities in Nepal for some time. In the worst aviation accident in the history of Nepal, a collision of a helicopter to a mountain claimed the lives of 24 people, including several top conservationists. Our highly esteemed partners Dr. Chandra Gurung and Dr. Tirtha Maskey were also among them.
Our field activities were resumed in the autumn of 2007 by organizing another workshop in Chitwan. In 2008, the Director General of DNPWC at the time, Shyam Bajimaya, asked us to conduct a pilot project so that the government could assess the outcome of our training methods. The elephant camp of Bardia National Park, the second largest site of training elephant calves in Nepal, had five calves that had not yet reached the age of starting traditional training; we were asked to supervise their training, and the government would later assess their performance. This was carried out during 2009 and 2010, after which the government authorities assessed the outcome and found that the elephants had learned a lot faster and responded to the mahouts with significantly more precision as compared to the traditional training system. Gopal Upahdyay, who at that time was the DG of DNPWC, asked us to next expand our availability to all mahouts in Nepal.
During 2007 to 2010, the network of people involved was also increasing. As in the beginning, the workshops were carried out onthe premises of national parks, under the approval with the Chief Wardens: Shiv Bhatta and Megh Pandey in Chitwan, Tika Ram Adhikari in Bardia and others. Anil Manandhar, now CEO of WWF Nepal, and his staff continued the collaboration. One of the key partners right from the beginning was the chief wildlife veterinarian of Nepal, Dr. Kamal Gairhe, who also did some of the lecturing of elephant healthcare in the workshops. Durign this period, teaching mahouts to use animal-friendly training of calves was mostly carried out by Laurie Pond from Australia Zoo and Dr. Andrew McLean of the Australian Equine Behaviour Center; additionally, Tuire Kaimio mentioned above and Glenn Sullivan of the Whipsnade Zoo and Zoological Society of London both taught in oen workshop. The perspective of elephant behaviour science was shared by Marc Pierard, a zoologist from Belgium with prior research experience in South Africa.
WWF Finland and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Finland decided to provide funding for a second three-year period, 2009 to 2011. WSPA, which had co-funded the first period of 2006 to 2008, was also impressed with the results, but their policy was to fund such external projects for one period only. Similarly, for WWF Finland and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, two three-year periods were the maximum possible. In order to ensure the continuity of the programme, and also in order to be able to later respond to the requests that we were getting from other south Asian countries to start similar programmes there, we established a non-profit organization called Working Elephant Programme of Asia (WEPA) in 2008. The name was later changed to Elephant Experts, because it turned out that by coincidence, the elephant polo hobbyists based in Nepal had at the same time founded World Elephant Polo Association, and the same acronym was causing some confusion. At the same time, we engaged with Green Society Nepal, a non-profit in the fields of sustainable development and socio-economic development, as a new local partner. WWF Nepal continued to be in favour our work, but as the economic recession in the West had reacehd a severe level in 2009, and as the WWF Nepal office is administered as part of WWF US, the cutbacks in funding from the latter meant WWF Nepal had to focus on core conservation only, ending their official involvement in such external developments.
In 2010, the next question was how to organize the expansion into educating all of the mahouts in Nepal, as requested by the government authority DNPWC. Dr. McLean, who had been one of the trainers in the workshops and contributed by developing a more systematic version of the pressure-release part of the training method, had recently set up a company called HELP Foundation (Human-Elephant Learning Programs). HELP offered to take responsibility of the expansion of the Nepal programme, and this was agreed, as it would enable us to better focus on the requests we were getting from elsewhere. At the same time, HELP was invited by the Wildife Trust of India to give training workshops there. As HELP did not have time to simultaneously continue the Nepal programme, it was agreed in 2013 that we would focus our resources on re-starting the programme in Nepal. We did that by carrying out a series of meetings with a variety of stakeholders, such as local and national government, private elephant owners, associations in the tourist sector, senior mahouts, veterinarians and NGO's, and gave of guest lectures to veterinary students and veterinarians at the Institute for Agriculture and Animal Science. In November and December, we organized a series of workshops in elephant training, management, behaviour and healthcare for 70 mahouts, from three different elephant camps and some mahouts from the tourism sector, as well as a one-day session for 20 senior government officials, elephant owners, heads of NGO's etc. The speakers included Marc Pierard of Elephant Experts on elephant training and handling; Helena Telkanranta on Elephant Experts on elephant management and equipment; Karpagam Chelliah from Indian Institute of Science on the behaviour of wild elephants; and Dr. Susan Mikota of Elephant Care International, Dr. Kamal Gairhe of DNPWC in Nepal and Dr. Sumolya Kanchanapangka of Chulalongkorn University in Thailand on elephant healthcare.
One of the most important developments at the end of 2013 and early 2014 was the request from Megh Pandey, the DG of DNPWC, to develop a structured plan on how to create a vocational training system for all the mahouts in the country, as well as the other necessary procedures in order to transform the entire management and training of captive elephants in Nepal into a modern, evidence-based and elephant-friendly system based on the best available knowledge. The workshops given by us have proven to be a good way to introduce the basic idea and to attract interest, but in order to make it possible for mahouts to really learn in depth, it is necessary to establish a more extensive and sturctural system of vocational education, to serve both current and future mahouts. At the time of writing this, we are working together with DNPWC to fine-tune and discuss our proposal for the first five-year plan.
Currently, in the year 2015, we have also resumed preparing for being available to start answering some of the requests we are getting from other countries, in order to start planning how to tailor the same successful approach to the cultures and situations elsewhere, in collaboration with local stakeholders.
The underlying theme in all of our work is to increase understanding of elephants and their needs. This has powerful potential in significantly improving the lives of both elephants and people working with 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