Andrew’s blog: This is the first day of the actual workshop as the previous day was for demonstration purposes. Late last night Ben arrived, with new equipment for some state of the art photography and video. We plan to write a coffee table book with few words and loads of impressive shots. Our intention is also to gather photos to illustrate the book I have just finished on alternative elephant training.
For this workshop, it was decided that we would train two as yet unridden 5 year olds: Unni, the 5 year old male that had a history of difficulties in his groundwork and Sundari, a 5 year old female that had been trained on the ground but had not had a rider except, apparently she had had a child placed on her back some time ago! We arrived at the Elephant Rehabilitation Centre in the Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary, Kottoor in the morning to get a fuller picture of Unni during his early morning bathing time. Bathing elephants can take up to 2 hours as their entire bodies are scrubbed while they lay on their sides blowing bubbles and squirting water around. In summer elephants are bathed twice daily. The usual mahout for Unni was still away so the stand-in mahout was in control. The bathing procedure showed just how much early learning occurs as the elephants soon learn to lay down in the water, to move their trunk and feet around according the mahout’s washing procedure. There seemed to be little problem with Unni during bathing and I pondered on the positive effect the previous day’s obedience lessons had had on him.
Our next task was to train Sundari. We spent some time deepening her go and stop responses in groundwork. Although she had not yet been ‘broken in’ to riding, she had, as a prelude to being mounted, been taught to raise her foreleg so that when the time came for mounting, the mahout would step on the elephant’s foreleg and on to her back.
After some time it was decided that the groundwork of this elephant was good enough that mounting could begin. The mahout stepped up to the elephant’s back and gradually assumed the riding position at which time we stepped Sundari back just in case it occurred to her to shake off the mahout. We repeated the mounting procedure and then began stepping her gradually more steps forward and back while the mahout sat passively on her back.
After lunch we worked her a second session and she improved so much as result of the growing clarity of the mahout’s signals and timing and especially enthusiastic at delivering the food rewards. In particular it was becoming clear that mahouts and senior trainers were recognising the powerful and rapid effect of combining positive reinforcement with correctly timed pressure-release. I had been asked by Vivek to identify trainers who might be the ones train the others in this state on this method and now it really seemed a difficult task – everyone was enthused. Because things were going so well, the mahout on Sundari’s back was now giving commands via his toes and heels and Sundari was already picking up the correct reactions and relishing in the new food rewards: coconut palm stalks dipped in salt. I couldn’t believe the progress we had made on the 1st day.
We worked Unni in the morning and he initially progressed slowly and showing some aggression and stereotypical behaviour (swaying) due largely to his previous confusing training on the ground. We focused hard on getting the mahouts on the ground to be very clear and effusive in reward and also taking everything step by step. I chose the mahout who was the most enthusiastic about using food rewards and who had excellent timing. We needed this to be very effective and efficient if we were to salvage Unni’s keenness. After a few repetitions of moving him forward and back he began to respond to voice commands and also began to open his mouth when he heard the voice command for ‘well done’ (‘aday-aday’) that preceded the food. Unni was really coming along and from here on in, his stereotypical behaviour ceased. He had never had a person on his back, so we decided that we’d teach him to lift his foreleg in the air for mounting. He learned this in 20 minutes and after a break, we repeated it and started the process of getting the mahout to stand on Unni’s foreleg and gradually habituate him to being mounted. After the long lunch break, we repeated this work and Unni was now successfully tolerating a mahout on his back. It seemed this elephant would do anything for food and tactile rewards and the team did a perfect job of not only training him, but also establishing a tactile rapport that showed in a totally renewed attitude of compliance with absolute calmness. After another break, Unni was now being ridden forward and back easily from the mahout’s controls astride. This was astounding progress and this previously problem young elephant was now looking like the perfect student.
We finished the practical training at 3pm as the elephants generally go out grazing. We then took the opportunity to get all the mahouts in the classroom to find out how they perceived what went on and what they had understood. I was very impressed on their improvement in just one day in their timing and delivery of signals and their use of food and head-stroking as rewards (instead of patting). The feedback seemed unanimously positive and they all looked forward to tomorrow’s progress.