Andrew’s blog: Once again our day began with washing the two young elephants down at the river. They were then mounted and both elephants held their legs up higher than before to assist the mahouts in mounting. This is a tricky manoevre since the elephants mostly learn to yield from pressure, so when the pressure of the mahout’s weight down on the elephant’s foreleg is felt by the elephant his natural tendency is to lower rather than raise the leg. So we used some positive reinforcement each day when the elephant held the leg higher than before.
We then rode the elephants down the narrow jungle road doing few gait transitions, backward steps etc. to consolidate, and then some more turns. The turns today were much better than yesterday and I felt that in both cases the elephants were turning well enough for the mahouts to go on with. It was pleasing to see how the mahouts taught each other and how the senior mahouts, Mr. Rata and Mr. Sagee took all the others under their wings and helped with their timing in both negative reinforcement (pressure-release) and positive reinforcement. They were spot on and I could see how much they had learned. From my initial feeling that they may take some convincing, I now saw a completely different picture.
Having completed all the ridden and ground tasks that I had intended i.e. For all intents and purposes these two elephants were now rideable and ‘broken in’ as you might say. So the next task was teach them to pick up objects and eventually hand them to the mahout on board or to someone on the ground.
Neither elephant had ever learned to pick and give objects so I was prepared to start at the beginning and reward simply just touching the stick that they were supposed to pick up. Sundari was the first candidate and her motivation for food rewards is so high that she took only three repetitions to pick up objects and when with a little directional help from us on the ground, she was soon transferring a stick that she had been asked to pick up to a mahout on board! All this happened in 10 repetitions. Everybody was ecstatic and I think that of the things we have taught here, this was crowning jewel as far as a convincing demonstration of how fast positive reinforcement can be. It would have been even quicker except that it is a very difficult proprioceptive move to hold a stick and simultaneously raise it to the top of the skull. So we rested Sundari on that note.
Now it was Unni’s turn and we all wondered if he would be even faster as his ridden work was a little quicker. Unni however was much slower. The mahouts tried to do their usual slower way of physically putting the stick in Unni’s trunk and then gently raising it above, but Unni was less interested. One of the mahouts thought it might work if they punished Unni for this but would not allow it as I felt he was already scared to hold the stick: it seemed that somewhere in his past he and been punished of picking things up and now he hesitated to even touch the stick. I explained that we need far more patience than what they have shown her so far. I coated the stick in jaggery (raw sugar) but still he wasn’t interested.
We waited a few minutes to see if he would touch the stick but to no avail. So we decided to change sticks. We tried green palm leaf but no go. So next we tried a bigger stick and again waited for him to touch and finally he did so I rewarded that. Some of the mahouts thought I shouldn’t have rewarded just touching the stick but I explained that this is the crux of the problem, Unni is afraid of touching the stick so rewarding touching it is what we have to do. Raising it once he had grabbed wouldn’t be difficult I thought. Unni’s strike rate improved in touching the stick and soon he was holding it with huge cheers from everybody that I felt Unni really could feel the excitement.
Now he improved rapidly and soon he was picking up the stick and raising it to the mahout above. So we tried the long thin stick that he was previously afraid of, however I felt we didn’t have too many more repetitions left in this session: I felt over-training was just around the corner. However, soon Unni was picking up the small stick then after the usual 20 minute mark had arrived, Unni began failing. Everybody was disappointed so I explained that we didn’t even need to finish in a good note as they say, we just needed to finish as there was no more transmission possible in Unni’s new neural network: we had depleted it of oxygen and glucose.
So we took a break and went to the classroom and discussed all the events that had happened including over-training, shaping (progressively rewarding better and better responses), patience and getting rid of any desire to punish for non-compliance. I also reiterated that habits are a result of repeated actions, and our job was to build good habits. I guaranteed both elephants would be better after lunch. During lunch, The two senior mahouts decided that, at the closing ceremony tomorrow, a very brilliant thing to do would be to get Sundari to put a garland of flowers abound the neck of The Chief Conservator of Forests. So we would practice this after lunch. I knew Sundari was doing well with their picking up objects but this was a tough challenge.
After lunch we began again with Unni and he was far better than before. He was now picking up objects with ease and handing them to the mahout above although a couple of times he would pick up the object, put it in his mouth and then raise his trunk toward the mahout astride to see if a food reward might eventuate. I reflected on just how far we had come with Unni. His neurotic stereotypy of weaving had diminished over the days and today it was absent. He seemed secure and more attached to his mahout than ever before and the mahout felt it.
Now it was Sundari’s turn. We repeated the throw stick and go and get it and give it to the mahout above or if requested give it to the person close by. This was a cakewalk for Sundari. So now it was time to practice with the garland. Sundari so transferred her picking up responds to the garland and then in just 2 repetitions walked toward a person standing nearby and dropped it near his head. We repeated this a few more times and no she had no trouble holding the garland, going to each of us in turn, and putting the garland around our necks.
We called it a day at this point. I felt more than satisfied that our mission was complete and that everybody was positive. The mahouts filled out a feedback questionnaire on all aspects of he workshop and Ramith, my excellent translator, showed me the results, which were unanimous in their praise for the workshop. Apparently the Wildlife Trust will make a report of these findings and I will publish them on the HELP website. Tomorrow is our last day and we will have final practice of all our training, which is now consolidated very nicely, and then we will have the closing ceremony.