What It Takes to Drive an Elephant

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


Man’s domestication of elephants has a long history. Perhaps the most famous example in antiquity is that of Hannibal, a Carthaginian general. In the third century B.C.E., the North African city of Carthage was fighting Rome in a century-long series of battles known as the Punic Wars. Hannibal assembled an army in the city of Cartagena, Spain, with the plan of marching on Rome. He first crossed the Pyrenees to enter what is now France. Then, in what Archaeology magazine terms “one of the boldest military maneuvers in history,” his army of 25,000 men—accompanied by 37 African elephants and scores of pack animals loaded with supplies—crossed the Alps into Italy. They had to contend with cold, snowstorms, rockslides, and hostile mountain tribes. That journey was extremely strenuous for the elephants. Not one of them survived Hannibal’s first year in Italy.

AS A mahout, or elephant driver, cooked his meal by the side of the Narmada River, he left his child between the trunk and forefeet of his resting elephant. The child repeatedly tried to move away, but “the recumbent elephant gently curled its trunk around the child and drew him back to where his father had left him,” recounts the book Project Elephant. “The father continued his cooking and appeared to have absolute confidence that the child was in safe custody.”

Work elephants have been in the service of man from as early as 2000 B.C.E. In ancient times, elephants were trained mainly for warfare. In modern India, they are trained to work. They are used in the logging industry, at religious festivals and weddings, in advertising, in circuses, and even for begging. How are these elephants domesticated? And how are they trained?

A Course in Elephant Training

A number of centers in India are equipped to care for elephant calves that have been captured, abandoned, or injured in the wild. One such training center is in Koni, in the state of Kerala. Here the calves are trained to become work elephants. A mahout must first win the trust of a calf. Feeding is an important way to build this trust. A calf recognizes its mahout’s voice, and when called for feeding, it will hurry over to receive its milk and millet paste. Training for work does not usually take place until young elephants reach their early teens. Then they are put to work when they reach the age of 25. In Kerala, government norms require that working elephants be retired at the age of 65.

To drive an elephant safely, the mahout must have good training. According to the Elephant Welfare Association of Trichur, Kerala, a new mahout needs intensive training for at least three months. Such training is not limited to learning to give commands. It also covers elephant science as a whole.

An elephant driver

An adult elephant takes longer to train. From outside the enclosure where the elephant is kept, the trainer first teaches his animal to understand verbal commands. In Kerala, a mahout uses some 20 commands and signals to get his elephant to do the needed work. The mahout gives clear and loud commands and, at the same time, prods his elephant with a stick and shows it what to do. When a command is obeyed, the elephant is rewarded with a small treat. When the trainer is sure that his elephant is friendly, he enters the enclosure and caresses it. This interaction reinforces mutual trust. In time, the elephant can be taken outside—with caution, of course, as it still retains some of its wild characteristics. Until it becomes clear that the elephant is fully tamed, it is chained between two trainer elephants when taken out for bathing and for other excursions.

After an elephant grasps verbal commands, the mahout sits on its back and teaches it how to respond to physical commands by prodding it with his toes or heels. To make the elephant move forward, the mahout presses both of his big toes behind the elephant’s ears. To make it back up, he presses both of his heels into the animal’s shoulders. To avoid any confusion, verbal commands are given by just one mahout. An elephant will understand all the commands within three or four years. Thereafter, it never forgets them. Even though an elephant has a brain that is small in proportion to its body, it is a very intelligent animal.

Elephant Maintenance

An elephant needs to be kept healthy and in good spirits. A daily bath is important. At bath time, the mahout uses stones and neatly cut coconut husks to scrub his charge’s thick yet soft and sensitive skin.

A man bathing an elephant

The mahout scrubs his elephant’s thick yet soft and sensitive skin

Then comes breakfast. The mahout prepares a thick paste of wheat, millet, and horse gram, a type of fodder. The main course includes bamboo, palm leaves, and grass. The elephant is delighted if raw carrots and sugar cane are added as well. Elephants spend most of their time eating. They need about 300 pounds of food and some 40 gallons of water every day! To stay good friends with his pachyderm, the mahout has to satisfy these needs.

The Results of Abuse

The gentle Indian elephant cannot be driven or made to work beyond a certain point. Elephants may turn on mahouts who inflict punishment, verbal or otherwise. India’s Sunday Herald newspaper spoke of one tusker—that is, a male elephant with tusks—that “went be[r]serk . . . following ill-treatment by the mahouts. The elephant which was reacting to the beating meted out to it by the mahout went on a rampage . . . and had to be tranquilized.” In April 2007, India Today International reported: “In the past two months alone, more than 10 tuskers have run amok at festivals; since January last year, 48 mahouts have been killed by the raging beasts.” Such displays often occur during the period known as musth. This is an annual physiological phenomenon connected with the mating season, during which the testosterone level of healthy adult male elephants rises. The result is aggressive and erratic behavior toward other bull elephants and humans. Musth can last from 15 days to three months.

Another situation in which an elephant can get agitated is when it is sold and a new mahout takes over. Its attachment to the old mahout is evident. To effect a smooth transition, the previous mahout usually travels with it to its new home. There, both handlers work together until the new one gets used to the moods of the elephant. When a mahout dies and a new one takes over, problems can be even greater. However, the elephant eventually comes to recognize and accept the new situation.

Even though some people might fear this mighty land animal, a well-trained elephant will obey a kind master. When kindness reigns, the elephant need not even be chained when his mahout is temporarily absent. All the mahout needs to do is place one end of his stick on the elephant’s foot and the other end on the ground and ask the animal not to move. The elephant obediently stands still with the stick in place. As illustrated in the introduction, the cooperation between an elephant and its mahout can be both surprising and touching. Yes, a good driver can trust his elephant.

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