Isn’t it cruel to ride elephants?

Elephant training, like the training of all animals can be cruel when it’s done badly. When elephants are trained to respond to light cues and have reliable habits, training poses no threat to their welfare. In fact we have seen that in places where the elephants are completely free to run off into the forest at any time during training such as in Nepal and India (Manas and Kaziranga), we have typically seen that they show up voluntarily for their training each session. When they are fully trained, they also show up at the training camps for their work in anti-poaching surveillance or first monitoring and other eco-management jobs.

Is elephant riding still relevant and needed?

In the communities where we work elephants have been a vital part of agriculture and forestry for many centuries. In many places such as Myanmar, the sue of elephants for forestry is now almost completely diminished because of an international moratorium on Burmese native timber. However they are still used and still very necessary for their role in forestry surveillance, tiger and other species census and anti-poaching. There simply is no better vehicle for this work. Elephants are quiet, sure-footed, can traverse river, swamp, thick forest and even steep terrain. In tall grass, the ridden elephant proves a bird’s-eye view of surrounding areas. They don’t break down and dangerous animals such as tigers are generally wary of them. This gives a huge advantage for anti-poaching work. In fact in India where elephants are used for this purpose, rhino numbers have actually increased which is incredible. Using elephants for anti-poaching is so successful that one would think twice before considering being a poacher.

Although many people believe that it would be nice if all elephants could be allowed to roam freely, the reality is that this is rarely possible. As the elephant’s natural habitat rapidly dwindles so too does the number of wild elephants. In the country with the greatest number of wild elephants, Myanmar, male elephants are now much more rare which places the Asian elephant on the trajectory of extinction. And its no simple matter to just reintroduce captive elephants back into the wild: they tend to be attacked by wild elephant populations according to Vivek Menon, Executive Director and CEO of the Wildlife Trust of India. So using elephants in anti-poaching and forestry patrolling means that the elephants have a big role in saving themselves and other poached species. Poaching is a major international conservation problem. If we do nothing to save elephants and other species in the wild, it is possible that future wild Asian elephants will exist only in zoos before they are finally extinct. It is worth noting that breeding elephants in zoos is very difficult with artificial insemination.

It’s cruel to poke elephants with a sharp spike. Why do you help people who are doing this?

The stick that is used to train elephants is called an ankus.

When an ankus with a rounded end is used correctly it is simply to apply pressure and is not at all painful – in the same way that a dog’s leash or horse’s bridle is not painful when used properly.

HELP does not seek to completely change the way that elephants are being trained as, in many communities, elephant training has been practiced for around 5000 years. We are modifying existing practices through the application of scientific principles in order to make them ethical and safer. An ankus with a rounded end being used correctly offers no threat to the elephant’s welfare.

Who are HELP’s trainers?

HELP’s trainers are all highly experienced and qualified animal trainers. Most of our elephant trainers have worked for many years in zoos training captive elephants.

I’m going on holiday to ride an elephant and I am going to use your methods when I ride the elephants.

We would strongly suggest that, rather than trying to train an elephant without permission from the mahout, that you observe how the training is being carried out and watch how the elephant responds. You can learn more about our elephant training principles by purchasing our manual Elephant friendly training for working elephants through Amazon.

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’s difficult to say whether one situation is better than the other because it depends on the quality of what is provided. So if elephants are provided for riding then the following conditions must be met:

– Elephants are trained using humane evidence-based practices
– The number of passengers is limited to say 2 people
– The number of hours worked per day to 8, days per week limited to 5 and months per year limited to 10
– The elephant’s ethogram is well accounted for (adequate forage/diet and exercise, access to social contact)
– The gear used on the elephants such as saddles are properly constructed and fitted
– That optimal health is maintained.

If elephants are kept in a sanctuary the following conditions must be met:

– Elephants are 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 sanctuary is sufficiently large and diverse (more than 4 square kilometres)
– The elephants are not washed more than twice per day
– The gear used on the elephants such as saddles are properly constructed and fitted.
– That optimal health is 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. Most of the training is slow, repetitious and conducted in another language. Our (lucky!) trainers stay in very basic accommodation and often in areas that are prone to malaria and dengue fever.

What do I need to do to work with elephants?

To become an elephant trainer you need to have many years of experience handling large mammals and you should also be consistent and have great timing. You can practice your elephant training skills on any animal – dogs, cats, chickens or horses! Many of our trainers have horse training qualifications and have worked in zoos. It takes years of practice training all kinds of animals to be skilled enough to train the world’s largest land mammal.

Why is your system different to others?

Our training system is based on the scientific principles that govern learning. Therefore it is objective and quantifiable. Dr Andrew McLean was the first trainer to systematically apply learning theory to training horses and the system that he developed has now been used with great success in many different countries and to train horses for many different disciplines. This system has now been adapted for use with captive elephants and we have seen the same effectiveness and improvements in welfare and handler safety that are the end result of the application of learning theory to horse training.

Where 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 and even their dogs.

How is HELP funded?

HELP 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.

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 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 HELP.

How long does it take to train an elephant?

That’s a good question and is best answered with another question…How long is a piece of string? 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 an opportunity to train it.

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 instill 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 agriculture and forestry. They will are mostly used in national parks to deter and seek poachers and to protect wild populations of endangered species.

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

Yes, there are bigger differences within each elephant species than there are between elephant species. There are a number of places in Africa where African elephants are successfully trained. 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.