By Lisa Barrett
“I said what I said, I meant what I meant. An elephant’s faithful—100 percent.”
–Dr. Seuss, Horton Hatches the Egg
It’s difficult to believe that I’ve been working for Think Elephants International (TEI) for over two months now! I am learning so much—Thai culture do’s and don’t’s, elephant personalities and facts, how to educate guests, conduct social cognition research—and am excited to continue learning!
What’s more, I learned how to be a mahout. Together with the other new research assistants, I participated in mahout training run by the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) and Anantara Golden Triangle. This was the perfect activity, since I have been fascinated by the elephant-mahout relationship ever since I saw my first elephant here (and despite the fact that history has never been my favorite subject). From the constant care provided for these majestic animals—and even physically living beside the elephant in some cases—to the extensive commands they remember, to the mahout’s outfit, I was struck by such a unique profession. What are their jobs like? How did they start being a mahout? Do they like being a mahout? While I hope to find individual mahouts’ answers to these questions during my time here, I decided to first gain a better understanding of the history of the mahout-elephant relationship.
A mahout and his elephant here at GTAEF.
“Mahout” comes from the Hindi words mahaut and mahavat, meaning “elephant driver,” and it even traces back to Sanskrit “mahamatra.” Historically, it was a profession for men (who passed down the tradition—and the elephant—to their son). Today, on the other hand, being a mahout in Thailand is losing its prestige. In fact, results from an informal poll revealed that of 200 civil service mahouts (mostly sons of mahouts), not a single mahout wanted his own sons to follow in his footsteps, and not a single son planned to do so. It is interesting to compare this view to that of the West, where some may liken mahouts to cowboys who live and grow up alongside an elephant calf and who naturally feel pride toward their profession and animal.
Captive Thai elephants have been interacting with humans for thousands of years, with kings first using them to help fight wars and then as beasts of burden in the logging industry. In this way, it is important to consider the history of Thailand when looking at the mahout-elephant relationship. The logging industry provided elephants with steady work during the day, after which they returned to the jungle and their natural social groups. Ironically, however, as they worked and earned money for their mahouts, they were also destroying their own habitat. Logging was so widespread, that it left much area treeless and prone to flooding. Logging was thus banned in 1989, and there were around 20,000 unemployed elephants and mahouts who had one predominant skillset. Around this time, the tourism industry boomed for elephants. Mahouts trained their elephants to beg for food, give rides, paint, and even play music.
The mahout village at GTAEF.
Photo by: Rebecca Shoer
This summarized history brings us to today’s mahout-elephant relationship. Specifically, I am speaking about the relationships I have seen firsthand as a research assistant for TEI (thus far) working with the elephants of GTAEF. GTAEF seeks to rescue elephants from street jobs and poor conditions by providing a home for them and their mahout. Mahouts receive a steady salary, health care, education for their children, and veterinary care for their elephant. This mission is integrated in GTAEF’s model of renting elephants from their mahouts. By renting elephants, mahouts are discouraged from taking another elephant out of the wild (as they might if GTAEF were to buy their elephant from them and the mahout sought to make the most out of their profit).
P. Nang (the only female mahout in the Golden Triangle), and her 7-year-old elephant, Pumpui.
Mahouts must control their elephant to ensure the safety of the elephant, humans, and other elephants around them. Mahouts employ a few different tools, besides training their elephant to obey over 40 commands, to control their elephant. Mahouts’ use of the bull hook is as ancient as their relationship with the elephant. This traditional tool serves to touch pressure points in order to direct the elephant and can be compared to a riding stick used with horses. While it can be used inappropriately (at some low-quality elephant camps, for example), it is not used with the intention to cause harm.
One may critique these tools to say they are harsh. However, you have read previously in this blog that different elephants exhibit different personalities- and some can be unpredictable. Furthermore, to continue caring for elephants in captivity, there must be a somewhat reliable means of ensuring safety of the humans around them, and the bull hook is the only way to do this. Ideally, there would not be a need for any tools or commands, but this is just not realistic. We are optimistic, though, that positive reinforcement will become more widespread among mahouts, especially since GTAEF has begun target-training elephants using positive reinforcement from mahouts.
A mahout bathes his or her elephant at least twice a day.
Mahouts must also bathe, feed, and clean-up after their elephant. And, they must be in very good physical condition—something I can attest to after climbing up the hill to retrieve an elephant in the morning!
Elephants eat up to 200kg of food per day!
More generally, this rather under-studied relationship demonstrates cooperation between humans and animals—perhaps one of the longest-standing examples of this.
Lair, R.C. (1997). Gone astray: The care and management of the Asian elephant in domesticity. Bangkok, Thailand: FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.