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One of our workshops on positive reinforcement in elephant-friendly training, given at the Elephant Breeding Centre in Chitwan, Nepal in December 2013.
Some of the mahouts participating in our workshop in Chitwan, Nepal in December 2013.
Getting ready for a training session in one of our workshops in Chitwan, Nepal.
Two of our assistants, Nirvay Sah and Aija Koskela, photographing and filming a training session. Freshly filmed video playbacks of the excercises are a popular tool for discussing the mahouts' progress and for illustrating details in need of further rehearsal.
The ability of elephants to communicate by infrasound has turned out to be one of the facts that were new to mahouts, as was their extraordinary acuity of smell. These helped mahouts understand why their elephants sometimes suddenly stop or refuse to move.
Providing vocational training for mahouts is one of the core parts of our work. We also provide advice when requested by others involved, such as elephant owners and managers, government officials, veterinary staff and related organizations.
Why is capacity-building and advice needed?
Most mahouts, managers and elephant owners in Asia have been taught only one way to control elephants: the punishment-based "breaking-of-the-will" system. They usually are very interested in learning a modern method based on positive reinforcement, once they have seen its benefits, such as faster learning and improved safety. It is a skill set of its own: in order to be able to control an elephant precisely, one needs to learn the details of positive reinforcement from a skilled professional.
Elephant health is another example. Many health problems, such as chronic back and joint pain, are difficult to recognize for the mahout or owner, and pain increases the risk of aggressive attacks. Preventing, diagnosing and treating such cases is increasingly possible, thanks to advances in several fields of science, such as elephant physiology and veterinary medicine. Expert advice based on the most recent knowledge of these can markedly reduce elephant suffering and save human lives.
Short workshops or extensive training?
We started our work in Nepal by giving short workshops, from one to three weeks, on elephant training and management, and have continued them since. These have proven to be an efficient way to elicit an interest and a willingness to learn more.
However, such short workshops or courses alone are not sufficient to enable a genuine shift to a new system of elephant training and management. A more extensive vocational training programme, such as the one we are currently developing with the government authorities in Nepal, is necessary for the in-depth learning necessary to master the new skills. After such comprehensive training, later workshops or refreshment courses can be used to maintain and increase the skill level.
Content of our workshops and vocational education
In both short workshops and extensive vocational training programmes, we tailor the structure in collaboration with local elephant owners or managers, senior mahouts and other local experts. This is to ensure both cultural and practical relevance. For instance, the duration of workshops and the hours of day are selected according to which best fits with the existing daily work of the intended participants.
The content of workshops and short courses can focus on one aspect, such as training calves, or cover a range of aspects, such as understanding elephant behaviour, monitoring health and introducing alternatives to the saddles and chaining systems that risk chronic back and joint pain. We usually use the latter approach with new audiences, and the former when repeatedly invited to the same elephant camps. Both types of workshops and courses consist of hands-on sessions with elephants, lectures, videos and discussion. The experts conducting the workshop are international professionals from the relevant fields, such as elephant training and veterinary medicine. They are assisted and translated by local students or others, with prior knowledge in related fields of science or the local mahout culture.
For extensive vocational training, the approach we are currently developing with the government authorities in Nepal involves a two-tiered system. First, there will be in-depth training for a selected group of senior mahouts, veterinarians and others, mainly those already in key positions. They will then become the teacher pool delivering tutoring to the current and future mahouts in the country. The topics covered will include positive reinforcement and other elephant-friendly techniques in training and handling; elephant nutrition, parasite control, prevention and care of infectious diseases, wound care and monitoring of health; planning of elephant camp infrastructure to promote improved health, such as replacing chains and shackling with fences; and physiological and behavioural needs of elephants.
The design ow howdahs (saddles) is one of the areas where elephant health can be improved. This traditional model is better than some, as the full weight does not lie on the elephant's spine, but significant improvement from this are possible.
Helena Telkanranta and Marc Pierard of Elephant Experts talking with mahouts of the Sauraha Hattisar and National Trust for Nature Conservation during a workshop in Chitwan, Nepal.
Copyright © Elephant Experts 2014-2016
Photo copyright © Elephant Experts and the photographers:
Minna Tallberg, Helena Telkänranta, Marc Pierard, Karpagam Chelliah,
Nirvay Sah, Sudhir Yadav and Ramesh Belagere