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How Do You Break the Mind of an Elephant?

How Do You Break the Mind of an Elephant?

Credit: Suvasini Ramaswamy

Elephants are not domesticated creatures, and the ones we see that appear to have been domesticated have actually had their body and will broken by a gruesome capture and subsequent training processes.

Credit: Suvasini Ramaswamy
Credit: Suvasini Ramaswamy

These are not metaphors. These are real world questions that I walked away with on a rainy June afternoon, after a visit to the Dubare elephant camp situated on the banks of the Kaveri river in Karnataka. Dubare is a historically important elephant camp managed by the forest department where elephants used in the Mysore Dusshera processions were traditionally captured and trained. Today, it is mainly a rehabilitation centre where rogue elephants from the wild are caught and tamed to minimise conflicts with villagers. As I walked around the camp, I witnessed elephants being taken through their morning rituals of a bath in the river and their meal (straw and rice neatly wrapped into fist-sized morsels). I witnessed young elephant calves giving themselves a mud-bath and ambling with long metal-chains trailing behind them leaving tracks of their movement. In my wanderings, I also witnessed an elephant in the early stages of taming and that was when I first heard about ‘breaking’ an elephant.

‘How to break an elephant’ is not a question I had ever seriously considered; even though, having grown up in India elephants were never exotic beings but an inextricable part of our folklore, religion and daily lives. I had seen them as gilded portals of divinity in temples, as practical tricksters in circuses, as indefatigable powerhouses in construction projects and as the sagacious elders in zoos; sometimes even in the wild. Despite our familiarity with these pachyderms for centuries, even today most people are not aware that elephants are not a domesticated species. In fact, most of the elephants we come across are actually caught from the wild, whose ‘will has been broken’ as they have been tamed to work with and for us humans.

Contrary to what one may imagine based on their timid nature, antics in circuses, and temples, elephants are not domesticated. Domestication involves the adaptation of a species to humans and its captive environment through genetic changes that occur over generations. A domesticated species is bred in captivity and is different from its wild ancestors so that it is more useful to humans, who control its reproduction, behaviour and food supply. For thousands of years – from Hannibal’s African war elephants to the modern Asian elephants – elephants are not domesticated but are rather just wild individuals whose ‘will’ has been tamed. They remain immune to our domesticating attempts by virtue of their long gestation periods, their low birth rates and their large size and appetite (expensive to maintain for the many generations needed for domestication). And yet historically, the sheer power, size and scale of elephants have made them attractive to humans as an enormous powerhouse waiting to be tamed.

A history of elephant taming in India and the world

An elephant being bathed. Credit: Suvasini Ramaswamy
Credit: Suvasini Ramaswamy

The art of taming and training elephants goes back nearly 4,000 years and seems to have developed originally in Asia, from where it is believed to have spread to Africa and Europe. At first, their use was mostly practical — as tanks in wartime, as timber forklifts in peacetime; but they soon became symbols of religious and social prestige. The art of capturing and taming an elephant slowly became a profession in itself, whose secrets were passed down the generations, accompanied by myths, legends and folklore that persist till today. The westward course of elephants began with the first contacts between Alexander and the Indians (during Porus’s defeat) and continued after his death in 323 BC. The Carthaginians are known to have been the first to capture and train African elephants (277 BC) when Hannibal used them in his Roman campaigns. After Caesar’s time, though, the use of the African war elephant died out and with the decline of the Roman Empire, the art of taming the wild African elephant was lost as well. The interest in elephants and their taming was however renewed with the colonisation of Africa and Asia by the Europeans in the 17th century. The exploitation of the African elephant for its ivory and the Indian elephant for its work capabilities meant that the creatures were studied extensively for many years.

Over the centuries, elephants have been tamed for three main tasks: warfare, industry and entertainment (in zoos and circuses). They were trained and used in warfare in India, China and Persia. The benefit lay not only in their sheer size but also in their concern for their human trainers and in their ability to charge at great speeds. This however became a handicap once gun-powder came onto the battlefield as elephants were scared into a rampage among their own troops. As one can imagine, elephants are very effective at labor that requires slogging and heavy lifting. In fact, their role in the European colonisation (through logging and transportation involved in the building of roads, railways and in other infrastructure projects) can’t be overstated. The elephant has also been used as an executioner, a symbol of social status and a religious icon.

Later with the advent of Europeans – like Carl Hagenbeck from Germany – an international trade in exotic animals began to flourish. Soon there was a demand for people to tame or train elephants and to follow them to their new owners and habitats in European zoos and menageries. The western elephant trainers, under Hagenbeck’s influence, were trained by Asian mahouts (often from Sri Lanka) and came to conduct with a mixed mentality of Asian mahouts and German horse-trainers. The 1900s saw the first imports of elephant for circuses and shows in western zoos. This was a rough time for elephants, as they were given bad food and suffered from cold weather, a lack of ‘normal’ mental stimuli and painful training methods to make them perform. But despite these challenges, elephants were bred in captivity with moderate success and this only worsened their plight as a species. Today, elephants continue to fascinate the people by their sheer majesty and antics and, yet, the training that they have to undergo to perform these feats gracefully, the physical pain and mental agony they are put through, are heartbreaking when revealed.

How are elephants captured and tamed?

An elephant being used for carrying logs. Credit: Suvasini Ramaswamy
An elephant being used for carrying logs. Credit: Suvasini Ramaswamy

In his historical account of elephant capture and taming in India – ‘Elephant Gold’ – P.D. Stracey lists five methods of capturing elephants as laid down by ancient Indian Sanskrit texts in the following order of desirability: in pens or stockades; by the use of female decoys; by mela shikar or the noosing of elephants from the back of trained elephants; by nooses concealed in the ground; and by the pit method.

These various methods were developed and became established in different topographical regions of India. For example: in the north, there is no record of capturing elephants in pits while in the south, the stockade method remained unknown until the British (G.P. Sanderson) introduced it to the Mysore plateau in 1873-74.

The most ancient and widely known method of capturing elephants is that of the stockade or the khedda (the word is derived from the Hindi khedna which in turn comes from the Sanskrit khet, meaning ‘to drive’). In the original Aryan stockade method, a large space was enclosed by a deep circular trench and the only entrance to the enclosure was a wooden bridge concealed underneath a deep layer of earth, turf and leaves. Female decoy elephants were driven into the enclosure as a trap for the wild herds that would sooner or later enter the trap. At the appropriate moment, the bridge would be demolished and the trap would be complete. The captives would be kept without food and water to weaken them, after which tame elephants would be introduced through a new bridge. A furious battle would rage between the tame and the wild elephants at the end of which the latter would be subdued, noosed in their necks and legs, and tied together.

In fact, a stockade with captive elephants can soon devolve into chaos with mothers trying to protect their young, the older males becoming aggressive and the males trying to impregnate the females. In order to bring about speedier subjugation of the captives, their necks would be incised with knives allowing the rawhide ropes to bite into their flesh. These methods are the forerunners of the capture-and-tame methods that continue to this day, including the cruelty, that hasn’t really been eliminated.

In the pit method, which was practiced in the south, deep (usually tapering) pits are dug in areas frequented by elephants. Although a thick layer of brushwood and grass bundles is laid into the pit to cushion the fall of the animals, this is usually not sufficient to prevent injuries during capture. The mouth of the pit is covered with split bamboos and camouflaged with grass and mud. When the unsuspecting animal falls in, the pit is prepared for noosing of the captive by placing two or three logs across the top. A white cloth is dangled over the elephant and when the elephant reaches up, a noose is dropped over the creature’s head. The hind legs are then noosed. When everything is ready, the neck and leg ropes are fastened to one or more tamed elephants and the captive is made to scramble out.

The most skilful method of capturing wild elephants is called ‘mela shikar’ and involves the chasing and noosing of a wild elephant by a phandi while riding on the backs of trained elephants. This involves a vast repertoire of skills in tracking an elephant, riding and chasing on an elephant, and finally noosing a wild elephant with a ‘phand’– all of which requires a long apprenticeship with an experienced phandi. Other known methods of elephant capture use nooses hidden in the ground, noosing to trap a wild elephant in chase, female decoys to attract males, lassoing, harpooning animals stranded in a flooded river and chasing elephants into enclosures. These methods have evolved in different regions of Asia (especially Burma, Siam, India and Indo-China) over centuries and continue to be practiced with minor modifications. The advancements in technologies such as tranquilisers, guns, trackers etc. over the years have further made things easier for us. The only deterrent to elephant capture so far has been the wildlife protection laws that have been introduced in some countries even though their implementation remains dodgy.

In a disturbing and debauched twist, in all these endeavours, previously tamed and trained elephants are employed either as decoys or as koonkis (or khungkies) to restrain, control and tame the captive elephant. The main duty of the koonki is to press and confine the wild elephants between them. Several koonkis work on an elephant and squeeze it between them so that the men on the ground can work in relative safety. In fact, a good number of the captive elephants get weak at this stage and may collapse from exhaustion and heat. Some of the rogue elephants that are not subjugated are shot. In the end, a much smaller percentage of the ‘truly broken’ captive animals are tamed and trained for their ultimate purpose.

These surviving animals are wounded, bitten, hungry and isolated. The captive elephants are then marched to a kraal, or a training enclosure, where they are truly broken – in mind, body and spirit. The kraal is a tiny, roofed enclosure of teak beams, measuring some 12 square feet. When the captive is introduced, the crossbars are replaced and firmly wedged in place. Early in the training process, the elephants are marched every morning and evening to the river to the accompaniment of traditional training commands. They are made to perform simple instructions such as stopping, going backwards, and turning around. The words of command are sung to the elephant, accompanied at first by severe thwacks with sticks and jabs with iron-tipped poles, attendant elephants assisting and performing the same gyrations. The elephant has a set of body ropes to which a rider clings as one attendant walks along in front with a long, sharp, wooden spear while another tails the back. The training is terminated by a bath and drink in the river. Strict discipline, captivity, pokes and jabs, teach the already wounded and starving animal to obey commands and over weeks this battering renders a wild animal docile. In this training phase, the mahout gains the trust of the captive animal by kinder treatment and continuous attention – thus beginning their journey from the wild and into our homes, circuses and temples.

How many elephants are there in captivity?

An elephant is trapped. Credit: Suvasini Ramaswamy
An elephant is trapped. Credit: Suvasini Ramaswamy

Today, there are approximately 15,000 elephants in captivity, mainly in Myanmar, India and Thailand. Myanmar has approximately 5,000 captive elephants, most of them involved in logging. In India, there are approximately 3,500 elephants in a variety of uses, such as festivals and temples. Thailand’s approximately 2,300 captive elephants are mainly employed in tourism, where they are ridden, forced to paint, perform antics and entertain tourists. Nearly all are tamed by the “breaking the will” approach and controlled by pain and severe restriction of movements. In fact, to facilitate training and maximise incentives, young calves are captured for taming and training through these barbaric methods. Typically, taming involves a period of “breaking the will”, where a young calf, separated from its mother, undergoes intensive physical punishment and injury with sharp weapons for a few weeks to months.

In a more gruesome practice called phajan, the elephant skin is slashed so that the ropes can inflict greater pain and nails are hammered into the feet to teach them to lift their feet. After this bloody phase, command words are slowly introduced by punishing the calf while repeating a word, until the calf finds out which movement it is expected to do. In addition to causing injury and long-term mental trauma in the elephant, the process is also risky for the trainers, who get injured when a calf panics, is angered or tries to escape. Occasionally and not unexpectedly, calves die from training injuries. It also raises a breed of animals that are mentally fragile, engulfed by fear and prone to not trusting humans in general. Even once trained, an elephant’s life, health and happiness depends on its mahout and its use in future. While some mahouts and trainers are gentle and establish a strong emotional bond, some others truly believe in the power of fear and punishment in maintaining obedience. This often backfires as a subjugated animal can have bursts of rage and disobedience and when it can inflict serious damage on the people around it. This further spurs on a new cycle of pain and abuse until one or the other succumbs and forfeits.

Even today, in many countries, elephants continue to be captured, tamed and trained in order to lure tourists, to entertain us in circuses and to be a part of religious ceremonies in temples. In fact, the demand for elephants is only increasing even as the supply is plummeting due to government interventions. While most people would object to the use of elephants in circuses and to encourage tourism, we often fail to see the drawbacks of using elephants in religious ceremonies but despite the prestige and care, these elephants in temples are also paying a heavy price. Further, since most temples prefer to have males with tusks, it is mostly males who are captured from the wild thus affecting the wild mating population and its genetic diversity.

Although Kerala’s temple elephants are also captured, tamed and controlled using force, their primary hardship isn’t the beatings. The typical wild elephant is a social creature that leads an active life wandering across large swathes of forest territory. On the other hand, a typical temple elephant is a celibate, captive male chained to one spot (sometimes for 24 hours at a time) and bathed with a hose. Instead of living in natural social structures, these elephants are isolated from others of its kind and, forced to stand on hard surfaces (leading to chronic joint pain). On big temple festivities, however, many different elephants converge in close proximity under a hot, tropical sun and are caparisoned for ritual grandeur and crowded processions. The situation is further complicated by the fact that these celebrations are often large gatherings of people accompanied by loud music, complex smells, loud noises and stress. Many unfamiliar elephant bulls are also made to stand and work in close proximity of each other, which leads to additional stress and fear.

This has resulted in many incidents when an elephant has panicked and, rushed into the crowd, causing human deaths and injuries. Other cases have involved elephants that have vented their aggression against an abusive mahout by stamping him and crushing his head. In Kerala alone, elephants are reported to kill dozens of mahouts each year. The life of a temple elephant may be marginally better than in a circus but nowadays, it is definitely harder than in many zoos where increasing awareness is leading to a global trend of more-natural habitats and a system of protected-contact with humans.

What is the solution?

Credit: Suvasini Ramaswamy
Credit: Suvasini Ramaswamy

While many activists have proposed banning the capture of wild elephants or their use in religious ceremonies, the solution isn’t so straightforward. Asian elephants have been protected as an endangered species for nearly two decades now and their numbers in the wild have been gradually increasing, with the creatures being seen in areas where they previously weren’t. Accompanied by deforestation and expanding human occupation of previously wild areas, there is now increasing contact between humans and elephants. The ever-shrinking and fragmented nature of elephant habitats has only meant more raids on crop fields, attacks on humans and the presence of elephants in human villages. Three decades ago, wild elephants were known to have killed close to 150 people in a year, but today, there are more than 500 deaths ascribed to elephants in India. Without the taming of these wild elephants and without providing them a safe enclave, these conflicts will only increase. Also, as one can imagine, maintaining the sanctity of elephants can help in protecting them from humans when conflicts eventually arise.

Thankfully, there are ways out of this stalemate. In fact, a large body of research done over the past few decades has identified newer, better methods of elephant capture, taming and training. There have also been successful interventions to prevent contact with humans. It is hard to believe that despite the long history of interactions between humans and elephants (more than 2,000 years), many of our methods are based on myths and superstitions that have persisted into modern times. Also, considering the art of elephant-handling is so specialised, it is difficult to not have faith and respect for the elephant handlers’ expertise even if it is not entirely based on facts and reason. Compounding the problem, the general level of education and awareness of the average elephant trainer is also so low that he can’t quite be blamed for many of these practices. In fact, many mahouts find the amount of apparently unnecessary cruelty in the form of the use of knives, iron-tipped spears, ropes, starvation and fire as appalling. And yet, its use is propagated because of a lack of awareness of better, less cruel methods. What is thus needed is greater awareness of alternative methods of training and a real understanding of the impact of our actions on the elephants.

Animal-friendly training methods have been used for many years now with other species like dogs and horses but the tradition and the historical baggage surrounding elephant training makes it more challenging in this case. Training and handling of elephants by techniques of positive reinforcement, habituation and other animal-friendly techniques rather than by methods of punishment has yielded better results. These approaches cause fewer health issues, better and faster compliance from the animals and build a stronger bond with the mahout and with humans in general. Mahouts who have seen it in practice have also been very eager to learn it. These methods however are most effective only when learnt from professionals and this is where regulations and government policies can come in play.

Many organisations such as Elephant Experts provide training in these methods based on scientific principles and observations. In positive reinforcement, a qualified trainer establishes a cognitive association in the animal’s mind between a specific action, a specific command (word, gesture or touch) and a reward (a piece of food or a gentle touch). These methods work at any age but work especially well in young calves, who are ready and eager to learn. This is akin to what one would do while teaching kids a new skill by kind words, encouragement and small rewards as opposed to brutal beatings and punishments! The animal also tends to learn better in a friendly atmosphere than when paralysed by fear and stress.

Conditions of captive elephants can also be improved by being more aware and sensitive to their needs. Keeping them free in enclosed, natural conditions as opposed to keeping them chained all the time would significantly improve their quality of life and mental state. Providing softer, more natural surfaces as opposed to hard, concrete floors would also resolve their chronic health problems. Access to proper health assessment, using elephants during appropriate times of the day (and not during high noon), gradual habituation to the sights, smells and crowds, and using milder forms of punishment (like tickling) can all go a long way in making the elephants more comfortable and less perturbable. This can make them calmer and safer for the people who work in and around elephants.

Many of our conflicts with wild animals are the result of expanding human influence and presence, leading to fragmentation and destruction of wild habitats. Currently, the government captures these problematic elephant herds and tries to rehabilitate them at one its many camps. The long-term solutions for these problems will be to check population growth and urbanisation, establish national parks, increase the legal protections of animals and public awareness. In the short-term, many creative efforts have been made to achieve peaceful human cohabitation with these animals.

A case in point is the adoption of technology in the Valaparai region of Tamil Nadu to reduce conflicts between humans and elephants. Valaparai, a biodiversity hotspot in the western Ghats, used to be a large tract of tropical rainforest but is now reduced to patches of rainforest interspersed with tea plantations and human settlements (each hosting up to 250,000 people). Today, close to a hundred wild elephants find themselves drowning in this sea of humanity. In a collaborative project between the civil society, the government and an NGO (the Nature Conservation Foundation), Valaparai now tracks its wild elephant herds and employs large-scale text-message alerts to make locals aware of the animals’ positions. The system, initiated from 2006 onwards, is coupled to an elephant informant network, which receives and passes on messages about elephant presence to people in the area.

With the widespread use of mobile phones a bulk-SMS system is being used to inform people on a daily basis. Elephant presence is also communicated as a crawl on the local cable TV channel. Additionally, GSM-based elephant alert red indicator lights are mounted in over 25 prominent locations and remotely operated when elephants are within 1 km. These methods have been well received and implemented by the community and are proving to be effective. A prototype GSM-based voice system for public transport buses to inform passengers before they alight is also being tested. This has brought about a big reduction in surprise encounters between men and wildlife and has drastically reduced the number of accidents. A detailed database of subscribers (of about 2,800 people), their place of residence, detailed maps and the location of the animals has also been prepared to identify the more important corridors through which the elephant herds move; this has been used to classify the most vulnerable areas.

Within a short span of two years, these interventions have reduced the incidents of property damage (e.g. houses, buildings or food grain storage centres) and human deaths. According to the forest department, while 2.8 lives were lost every year before the early warning system was put in place, the number dropped to 1.3 once it was launched, with no deaths in 2013. These interventions are also managed by the community based on extensive dialogue and rely on existing and easily managed technology, making the entire program sustainable and expandable. Funded by the UK-based charity Elephant Family, other international agencies and some local tea plantations, this is a wonderful and sustainable example of using human ingenuity in resource-poor environments to tackle the complex problem of human-animal conflicts.

The long-term hope is that such local measures, awareness campaigns and solutions will provide our wild animals an opportunity to co-exist with the human sprawl. One also hopes that the governments of developing countries will soon wake up to realise their long-standing neglect of our ecological resources in the pursuit of higher GDPs and industrialisation. While progress is essential, it must not come at the expense of our biodiversity and natural resources. We must learn to use and conserve our unique resources by employing more conservation-oriented policies.

What can I, as an individual, do to make a difference?

Credit: Suvasini Ramaswamy
Credit: Suvasini Ramaswamy

While these are big problems and the solutions require a lot more investment from people and institutions, the good thing is that we are not as powerless as it may seem. Our biggest strengths and weapons are our wallets and our voice. We can decide the kind of practices we choose to encourage and support. We, as people, parents and teachers, can raise awareness about the plight of these animals, inform people about the lesser-known aspects of their behaviour and inject a sense of wonder. We can boycott circuses and performances; and lest you think that small measures don’t have big impact, a case in point is the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus – one of the largest traveling circus establishments in the US, which has to decided to phase out its Asian elephants and move them to a conservation centre in Florida after a steady decline in public support. We can help spread awareness about the nobler and gentler methods of animal training. We can discourage the use of animals in religious processions or at least insist on better conditions for them. We can protest against the unethical treatment of animals in other countries by withdrawing our tourism dollars and we can actively urge our governments for better legislation and law enforcement. In fact, numbers suggest that if there are no more captures and no more births in captivity, within fifty years there will be few to no elephants in captivity. In a country struggling with starvation and poverty amidst its populace, this also makes economic sense.

We can support organisations, individuals and NGOs in their quest for better, more humane treatment of animals. We can walk away from practices like the buying and selling of ivory because they indirectly influence the market’s demand-and-supply equation and lead to the large-scale butchering of elephants. There are many NGOs who can use our support – in kind or in spirit. Many a battle can be won by increased awareness and we can be active conduits in the spread of this information. In other words, we can be the change we want to see in the world. And last but in no way the least, we can teach our kids the wonder of the world around us. We can tell them about these majestic and yet gentle giants that have roamed our earth since before our arrival on this planet.

So, in closing, let’s not break any more elephants for the shards are only going to hurt us.

We may not be able to unbreak the broken and unmake our mistakes – but let’s at least try to not make any more mistakes. For as P.D. Stracey says, “Perhaps it is not too much to hope that the people and their leaders will repay the debt of thousands of years of the trade in ‘elephant gold’ which has been wrung from this noble animal.”

Acknowledgement: The author would like to express her sincere gratitude to Dr. Karpagam Chelliah from the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, for her generous help in directing resources, answering many questions and proof-reading the document.

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