Isn’t it cruel to ride elephants and is elephant riding still relevant/ needed?

H-ELP does not have a position on domesticated elephants, because it is not an advocacy organisation but an animal welfare one. Just as many people object to fishing, or eating eggs, this does not invalidate efforts in animal welfare to undertake more humane catching practices to ensure by-product is not caught in nets or implementing free range on chicken farms. Our mission is just to improve the lives of domesticated Asian elephants using scientific methods in animal welfare.

Who are H-ELP’s trainers?

H-ELP’s trainers are highly experienced and qualified animal trainers. Our qualified trainers begin work under the guidance of founder and Dr Andrew McLean, and then gradually they begin to take greater responsibility in the various training tasks.

Do you have any recommendations for the better places I can ride elephants on my holiday?

Unfortunately we cannot offer any recommendations but we suggest that if you would like to ride an elephant that you support an organisation that has healthy, content looking elephants with no visible signs of skin damage from the ankus. You could look at reviews on websites like Trip Advisor before choosing where to ride. If you are unhappy with your experience please contact your tour organiser or your hotel/guest house and let them know as this can be a useful way to effect change.

Should I go to a sanctuary instead of riding an elephant, is one better or worse?

It should be remembered that there are 15,000 captive elephants in Southeast Asia and it is a matter of fact that there simply is not possible for them to be returned to their natural habitat, because these habitats are rapidly shrinking, increasingly invaded by humans, and in many cases already depleted and under intense pressure. In fact, wild elephant populations are becoming increasingly unnatural in age and sex composition and many are unable to fully utilise their habitats because of human pressure and poaching. While living in sanctuary is ideal, even this is becoming increasingly unrealistic for such a large number of elephants. The Asian elephant is heading toward extinction and thus is on the IUCN ‘red’ list.

In line with H-ELP’s standpoint on animal welfare, regardless of where elephants are kept, the following conditions should be met:

– Elephants should be managed and handled using humane evidence-based practices
– The elephant’s ethogram is well accounted for (adequate forage/diet and exercise, access to social contact)
– The amount of exposure to humans is limited and voluntary (not lured by food through the provision of addictive sugar/salt/fat-based foods)
– The elephants are not washed more than twice per day
– The gear used on the elephants such as saddles are properly constructed and fitted
– Optimal health and nutrition are maintained.

Can I come with you on your workshops?

We get asked this a lot! (understandably!)

Sadly, this is just not possible at the moment. In some places there are restrictions on personnel attending sanctuaries, camps and some National Park locations. In the practical locations we work intensively with mahouts and distractions must be kept to a minimum.

What do I need to do to work with elephants?

To become an elephant trainer, you need to have some qualifications in animal learning and training. A background in zoology and animal behaviour is a good start. Elephants are large animals and can be dangerous, especially if they have had an abusive, punitive or even just a confused background. It is important to be comfortable in such a situation which can also be compromised by the fact that most elephants live in areas where dengue fever and malaria are rife. With H-ELP’s work, we are in ‘free contact’ with the elephants and we work directly to improve what mahouts do with their elephants 24 hours a day and throughout the animal’s entire life.

Why is your system different to others?

There are quite a number of training organisations in South-East Asia that bring the latest techniques in elephant training from a Western zoo background. These organisations typically employ target training techniques (positive reinforcement) and they work in protected contact (a fence between elephant and trainer).

The H-ELP system of training is in free contact, that is working in direct contact with the elephant. Our work is based on training the mahout to do what they have been doing for thousands of years in a much more humane way. About everyday interactions and from birth to death. Naturally we are also involved in training and re-training elephants to accept all manner of veterinary interactions, but the majority of our work is teaching mahouts to be able to move their elephants and control them safely but without any punishment techniques at all. Mahouts have always worked in free contact and so it is vital that they are exposed to modern training techniques to keep them safe and to enable their elephants to have welfare. Our workshops involve teaching mahouts and all elephant personnel the essentials of animal learning processes (called ‘learning theory’). In doing this, the efficiency of training is greatly accelerated and elephants can be trained in a fraction of the time that any traditional method has yet been able to achieve. Our work is not to devalue traditional elephant training across Asia or any religious significance, but to simply modernise training and remove inhumane elements such as punishment or dominance methods.

Can I learn more about your methodology / technique?

You can buy our elephant training manual Elephant friendly training for working elephants through Amazon. Because the scientific principles in the manual are universal – that is they can be applied to all animals, some of our supporters have used the manual to train their horses, dogs and cats.

How is H-ELP funded?

H-ELP is run entirely by a talented group of volunteers and funded by donations.

How can I contribute?

You can make a donation via our website or you can visit our shop.

Donations in excess of A$2 are Tax Deductible. When you have donated, please e-mail us to request a receipt while we work on automating the process. We would also love to hear from you if you have marketing, promotional, legal or accounting skills that you would like to donate to us.

Do you have internships?

Sadly, no. However, there is occasionally an opportunity for people to help out in running events and promoting us. Please send us your resume if you have time that you would like to donate to the running of H-ELP.

How long does it take to train an elephant?

The core responses required in elephant training can be trained in six weeks, however the consolidation of these responses into long-term memory, if undertaken with clarity and consistency, begins to set in after 3 or so months. In H-ELP's workshops, we begin with these call responses but the most important element is that we train the mahouts precisely how to keep going with the training of the core responses including training the elephant to pick up objects with the trunk, pick up legs for husbandry and veterinary purposes and to lie down. Using the science and mechanics of learning theory, it is really surprising how fast this can be learned by elephants. Elephant training is a dynamic and ongoing process and there is never a moment when we can say that the elephant’s training is complete. Every interaction with an animal is a moment of learning. For this reason we start when the elephant is very young, in teaching the basics of going forward and backwards so that when the young elephant in the camp is doing something unwelcome, such as raiding the food store, instead of being punished, he can be simply instructed to go backwards or some other response. Simple and very basic commands set up the elephant for later life and give him clarity and predictability and enable him to have better welfare and avoid provoking any aggression.

What do you train elephants to do exactly?

Like correctly trained horses, elephants are trained so that the handler has complete control over their legs both on the ground and while they are being ridden. Elephants are also trained to pick up and drop objects with their trunks. We assist mahouts to instil and shape behaviours that suit the jobs they do with their elephants.

What are the elephants used for once you have trained them?

The elephants we train are used in surveillance of national parks. and antipoaching purposes thus helping to protect wild populations of endangered species. In places like Thailand, elephants are increasingly used in the tourist industry, and the in vast majority of that industry that serves Western tourists, the elephants are not ridden anymore. Instead, interactions or education are offered to tourists.

Elephants are expensive to keep as they eat around 250 kg of food a day and more recently, the effects of the pandemic have resulted in many elephants sold or abandoned and many tourism businesses have closed down. Unfortunately, many of the elephants are sold to China where we have no idea of their whereabouts or condition. In some cases, these elephants are used for entertainment, and in many other instances they are used for traditional medicine where their tusks, trunk, feet skin and other body parts are extracted. If Western tourists spent more time and money in the conservation of the captive elephant, much of this disaster could have been averted.

Can African elephants be trained the same way as Asian elephants?

Yes, there are bigger temperamental differences within each elephant species than there are between elephant species. Although the training of African elephants is not widely known, there are a few places in Africa where African elephants are successfully trained for ecotourism purposes. Furthermore, the great Greek battle commander Hannibal (around 200BC) marched an army, which included African elephants, from Iberia over the Pyrenees and the Alps into Italy.