Training Day 2

Part of my job is to balance efficient elephant training with traditional practices especially considering the religious and cultural roots embedded in elephant training. The god Ganesh gave the elephant to be trained. Fundamentally all I want to do is to teach them how to train these animals so that the (training-related) death rate of mahouts diminishes, the death and injury rates to elephants diminishes and that the training efficiency is so good that we produce confident, bold elephants that don’t panic when the challenges are high, for example when gunshots are fired during anti-poaching. Nervous elephants, like dogs, horses and people are mostly created, not born. They are created largely due to losses of predictability and controllability over their lives and the greatest source of this insecurity is the early tethering and senseless punishment that occurs in traditional training. Getting rid of that is vital, and is the main reason for our work here in Asia, apart from the importance of eradicating poaching.


Whenever I’m teaching I always think that when people develop autonomy in their learning then my job becomes easy. So it was heartening to hear from the mahouts themselves that they wanted to spend more time perfecting their work on the ground with forward, stop and step-back before they attempt to mount the animal. It’s much more efficient in the long run to establish each behaviour as much as possible. Patience saves time.

mahouts agat with elephantSo this morning was spent in polishing the command/responses of step-back and go forward. We developed more steps in both directions from voice commands and we also began to install changes of speed i.e. the very slow walk. We also focussed on teaching the elephant not to follow our steps when going from halt to walk, but to wait for the command because of the ambiguity that occurs in always following human steps.  Mental security and confidence comes from avoiding all ambiguity in training as well as establishing commands that connect to responses with as near to 100% strike rate as possible.


The mahouts themselves recognised the value of this groundwork and saw their own progress which motivated them to continue. This is only a short workshop consisting of just three days so I wanted to give them some other behaviours to work on. A significant aspect of the working elephant’s life is to learn to pick up objects. However, when I suggested this to the mahouts via the translator, they felt this would take far too long to train and in any case was an advanced thing that should be trained much later. Because of my work with horse people I’m aware that in delivering change, egos can be fragile and ultimately alienating – I could shoot myself in the foot.  However time is running out for this workshop so I explained that we should just make a little start to give the other work a break, nothing demanding.

Neela grasping the stick

Neela grasping the stick for the first time


A mahout gives Neela her reward after a good repetition.

A mahout gives Neela her reward after a good repetition.

We decided to teach one elephant, Monish to pick up a sack that they use as a saddle. We had only just begun and it was clear that this was not only simple but a lot of fun. In the very first session Monish was not only picking up the sack but was responding to the command of throwing over his head so it landed on his back. There was quite a lot of hit and miss, but the intention was clear to see.  Neela’s mahouts on the other hand had decided to teach her to pick up a stick. This went reasonably well and we finished the day with very motivated mahouts and elephants.

During breaks and at the end of the day the Mahouts ask questions

During breaks and at the end of the day the Mahouts ask Andrew questions about the methods. Aftab our translator did a brilliant job explaining things in terms everyone understood.