The elephant is a species at a crossroads. Caught between 5000 years of tradition, an ever-diminishing habitat and a growing tendency towards anthropomorphism.
Most people will never get to see an Asian elephant in the wild – those days have long passed… The question we face now is how to train and manage the captive elephant population so that our children and grandchildren can see them outside of petting zoos and picture books.
As a horse trainer I privilege evidence based training systems so I’m always looking at things with my scientific goggles on. I like to think they strip back the years of anthropomorphic thinking and the notion that the horse is there to do a job for us and help us to train according to the ethology of the horse and the scientific principles of learning. This background in equitation science has really helped me to be confident embarking on only my second trip with elephants.
Without the human the horse would be extinct, the same could easily be true of elephants in a matter of years so it is important that we find a place for them in tourism because there is very little natural habitat left. While logistically more difficult to keep because of their size, food requirements and how much space they need and the number of miles they need to walk each day, it seems to me that if the training is done in an ethical and evidence based way it’s no different to keeping a horse.
Michael Vogler and his team and partners at Mandalao Elephant Conservation are striving to keep their elephants in the best way possible by understanding their ethology and designing their management accordingly. Over the past three days we’ve worked with their young male elephant, Kit, aiming to improve his forward and backwards responses and testing his understanding of these by introducing park. He has now learnt to lift both hind legs onto a stump for future foot treatments as well. We worked closely with Will Thomas from Animal Doctors International who looks after the veterinary work at Mandalao to weigh the elephants, do general health checks and to gain an understanding of what training would be useful to aid him in his work. The elephants at Mandalao are kept in as natural environment as possible which helps to also reduce the risk of many common issues in captive elephants.
We’ve been working closely with the mahouts to explain the differences between habituation (or getting an elephant used to something, such as the mahout touching her feet) and training a response (for example getting the elephant to lift her foot onto a stump to have it touched). The mahouts are very interested and engaged in the learning and training, we feel our work here will make a lasting impression as the mahouts work each day to try and understand and improve the training of their elephants.
The scientific understanding of learning and behaviour is only around half a century old, on the other hand elephant training, like horse training, is around 5000 years old and steeped in tradition and folklore. It is easy to see why science is slow to gain traction in these deeply traditional practices, just like it is in the equestrian industry. However, so far we have had a great reception everywhere we go – it is such an efficient way of training and the mahouts have great relationships with their elephants.
As a horse trainer I’ve also done work training camels, dogs, and our own cats. At home we use the principles of equitation science in both our foundation training programs and for re-training of ex-racehorses and solving behavioural problems in difficult horses. The uptake of behaviours seems to happen at a very similar rate across the species we’ve worked with which I find very interesting. Camels and elephants are slower in their movements and less flighty than horses which changes some of the initial focuses of the training but effectively they are both big, strong, fast and potentially dangerous animals so the training initially begins with controlling the movements of their legs.
We’re looking forward to our next training camp where we will work with mahouts from several different elephant camps across Luang Prabang.