Andrew’s blog: Today began again with bathing both Unni and Sundari. This was uneventful but it is still always enjoyable to see the elephants confident and comfortable playing with the cool water, and occasionally exploring the bank and each other with their trunks. I decided we should mount the elephants as we did yesterday for the ride back to the training ground. The elephants both showed improvement in the way they raised their foreleg so the mahouts could mount. We practiced a few step-backs and gait transitions and today the mahouts needed no reminding about the timing of food delivery, they were spot-on. Once we had a few gait transitions completed I decided it was time to begin to train turns.
I showed them the narrow track I wanted them to ride so that the turns wouldn’t be too steep and more over so the they would actually be rewarding just two foreleg steps of turn rather than expecting the elephant to perform a series of steps or a half circle. I ensured that the mahouts would classically condition the toe signal for turns by giving the toe signal first. Unni was gradually getting the response more correct each time, however Sundari was slower and this prompted the mahout to use his stick far too harshly on her ear-flap and, as I have seen previously that this never seems to work, Sundari took off with the mahout who couldn’t control her. Unfortunately a large procession of school children had arrived and was just ahead of us and in Sundari’s trajectory. The children and the teachers scattered in all directions and Sundari finally came to rest. This provided a great moment to point out the futility of these punitive actions and also the folly of losing your temper.
One of the senior mahouts showed me another way of achieving turns: by getting the elephant to hold a stick in its trunk while the other end is held by an assistant who can help the elephant turn. So we began this way, again ensuring the mahout gives the signal first and then the assistant on the ground helps if needed. This ended up working very well, and Sundari’s turns really improved. Unni however took longer to get the hang of holding the stick and once again the mahout lost his temper and hit the elephant for letting go of the stick. I then corrected him and showed him that now Unni thinks holding the stick is a bad idea. Instead I rewarded Unni for holding the stick for longer and longer periods of time so that in 10 minutes, Unni was comfortable holding stick and his turns improved.
We gave a break and then repeated these exercises of stop, back, go and turn and both elephants became more comfortable with the set routines. I could see now that our riding work was just needing consolidation: i.e. more practice so that actions would turn into habits. I could also see how the mahouts were helping each other to refine their training.
Because things had been going so well and because of the possibility of our routines becoming stale, I decided that in the afternoon we should take both elephants on a ridden safari to the grazing grounds where they could freely graze for an hour or two. So we headed out, the two elephants with their mahouts aboard and the 15 or so mahouts and trainers on foot. On the way to the grazing, we did a few transitions here and there of go, stop and turn and rewarded once again with coconut pith dipped in salt. The elephants were then freed and grazed happily together enjoying the free grazing and the free interaction with each other. The rest of us sat back and took in the birds, monkeys and interesting flora that is endemic to this part of India. We then mounted the elephants and went home.
Once back at the camp, we had a classroom meeting and went over all elements of theory again including the importance of principles such as the uniqueness of signals, the use of the correct amount of pressure and the light signals that precede it. I discussed the problems of dual signals (blocking and overshadowing) and then stressed the importance of not losing your temper and avoiding punishment especially the futility of punishment for non-compliance of a signal. This was well received and I strongly felt that everybody was seeing that this is not just important for elephant welfare but of critical importance for mahouts. Just this week we received the terrible news that elephants in Kerala had killed 2 mahouts. Another piece of sad news was that someone was killed by a tiger that had also killed 3 others in the last fortnight. The villages wanted blood now and demanded that the tiger be killed so I’m not sure what will happen now. Apparently a vet armed with a tranquilizer gun and well practiced in capturing ‘man-eaters’ has been assigned to the task, so it will be interesting to see what eventuates.
On a happier note the mahouts had all got together and asked me if I would propose to the WTI officials and Forestry at the closing ceremony of this workshop that a 20-minute training session for all mahouts to be held daily on this method of training. I was over the moon that this suggestion had come from the mahouts themselves. So once again we finished on a very positive note.