In Thailand, where there is a long tradition of using violence to tame elephants, some mahouts who care for the giant animals are finding gentler ways to raise them.
“The key is determining which ones are leaders and which are followers, ” says elephant conservationist Sangduen Chailert, explaining how to introduce elephants to new herds.
Chailert runs the Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand that has received numerous accolades for its work rehabilitating injured or traumatised elephants, and finding non-abusive methods of raising them.
The park extends more than 60ha in the country’s north and is home to over 100 elephants. It is open to tourists and volunteers who wish to learn its ways.
The park contrasts starkly with most other Thai elephant camps where the animals perform in shows and give tourists rides. Those camps use chains to confine the elephants and metal hooks that jab into their thick skin to ensure they obey.
“Most elephants that we rescue are released by people who can’t use them anymore. They’re extremely vicious and can’t be used for tourist rides as they’ll shake people off their backs, ” Chailert says.
The Elephant Nature Park has zones to separate elephants that are safe for people to be around from those who are more dangerous.
Sangduen says around 80% of elephants reached the park in poor condition, suffering from psychological trauma or malnutrition.
She says the best way to rehabilitate them is by introducing them to other elephants and letting them interact with each other.
“We believe that humans, no matter how good or experienced we think we are, we don’t understand their language the same way they do with one another, ” Chailert says.
“Elephants naturally live together as herds in the forest and we believe that living in a herd psychologically rehabilitates them, ” she says.
Depending on the elephant, it could take anywhere from months to decades for the beasts to adjust to a new herd, Chailert says.
In the north-eastern province of Surin lies a village where most people have elephants in their backyards, dating back to when their ancestors used them for logging.
Nowadays, the elephants are mostly used to entertain tourists who come for rides or to see shows where the animals dance or play football.
Thailand’s elephant tourism industry has been repeatedly condemned by animal activists for its abusive training methods.
Wattanyu Muanrat, a 28-year old mahout and Surin villager, says he has seen images of people violently beating chained up elephants as a method of training that he finds difficult to bear.
He says this was an ancient way of training elephants and a problem that needed to be addressed.
Muanrat attained Internet stardom with a Youtube channel with nearly 900,000 subscribers keen to watch his elephants.
The most popular elephant, named Buaban, has a Facebook page with nearly 600,000 followers who regularly donate pineapples as snacks.
Muanrat says although he disagrees with violent training methods, most mahouts, himself included, occasionally still use the hook to discipline elephants, and chains to ensure they do not stray.
“The hooks are used to make sure the elephants don’t harm people, ” he says. “If an elephant kills a person, the elephant is not accountable but their owner is, so the owner needs to be careful.”
Muanrat says he only uses the hook sparingly to warn his elephants against making sudden movements that could harm humans, adding that it would be unrealistic for people to expect to have their safety guaranteed without such measures.
Muanrat says each elephant has different characteristics, so they are treated differently, as some are more aggressive than others.
He says it takes around three years to determine the personality of each newborn elephant and whether they are safe for humans to be around.
Most elephants that tourists are allowed to play with are either old and passive, or exceptionally kind-hearted, he says.
Muanrat says he would love to one day raise elephants in an open field like at Chailert’s Elephant Nature Park but does not yet have the means or enough land to do so.
“It’s great but it also affects nearby mahouts in the area who use the hooks so it also requires explaining to them, ” he says.
“Even myself, with what I’m doing every day, I get criticised by other mahouts around me who use hooks and chains. They say I’m careless with how I raise elephants but I tell them it’s the modern way and you don’t have to keep them completely captive, ” says Muanrat. – dpa
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