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Elephants at Work

THINK ABOUT THAILAND and animals at the same time and thoughts will probably turn to elephants. Well-trained elephants with brave and daring mahouts were crucial to the felling of teak forests around Chiangmai and in the North in the past. Visitors to Chiangmai can watch logging elephants at work at the elephant camp in the nearby Mae Taman's Elephant Conservation Camp, or more adventuresome visitors can visit the Center for Training Baby Elephants near the city of Lampang. Elephant riding has also become a popular and common feature of Hilltribe trekking throughout the North.

The Asian elephant can reach a height of over three meters at the shoulder and is remarkable for its intelligence and longevity. Scientists rate an elephant's intelligence on a par with that of whales and dolphins, and they have a life span roughly equal to that of a human being. A Thai working elephant is considered to come into its prime at age twenty and is expected to have a further working life of approximately thirty five years, with retirement at sixty.

A man who wishes to be a mahout must master a number of skills involved with his elephant's work, such as knowledge of a proper diet, complex knot tying, the fabrication of various kinds of tack for his elephant, and the like. His primary task, however, it to learn to understand and manage his animal.

In the past, to become a mahout was like acquiring mastery of artisan skills, through a long apprenticeship. A would be mahout would join a logging team, consisting of approximately five to six elephants and fifteen men, in the teak forests. An apprentice who showed skill in working with the animals might be promoted to foot mahout, but several more years of learning and absorbing knowledge from the senior mahouts was needed before the apprentice mahout graduated to being a neck mahout. The rough logging camps were ideal learning environments as the range of possible activities was limited to conversation and work. The apprentice mahout could absorb the wealth of technical details which were necessary knowledge for handling the elephant and working in the forest through conversations with the senior mahouts and watching them in action during the three to five months of uninterrupted work in the forest.

The forest apprenticeship system produced mahouts who were skilled workers and controllers of their animals, but that is a thing of the past. Once there were several small elephant training centers in North Thailand, but in 1969 they were shut down and consolidated at the Center for Training Baby Elephants, located on a fifteen rai plot of land south of the city of Lampang. The center was intended to nurture baby elephants an successfully wean them so their mothers could be returned to work, protect them and provide them with veterinary care, as well as to train mahouts.

A baby elephant born at the center nurses at first and is gradually weaned to an elephant's natural diet. At age three it is corralled for a period of seven days with other babies to wean it from dependence on it's mother. It is then introduced to its two mahouts and all three begin an arduous seven year training period.

Mahouts control elephants by three methods; commands given by voice, those given using an elephant prod, a stick ending in a blunt hook, and by applying pressure with the feet and legs. The prod might be to tap parts of the animal's body to indicate the angle of work, the desired direction to move indicated with the feet, and the action begun with a voice command.

When training begins the foot mahout accustoms the animal to the various tack used in working and applies permanent leg chains which can be used to hobble it. The first order of training is to teach the elephant to lift either of its front legs so the mahout can step up to mount it, and to lower its head to facilitate mounting. This action is taught by prodding the animal's legs with sharp sticks.

The next skill taught is for the elephant to pick up objects with its trunk and give them to the mounted neck mahout. The animal is allowed to eat several pieces of sugar cane and then a piece with a cord attached is thrown down. When the elephant moves to eat it, the mahout jerks the cord, elevating the animal's trunk over the forehead. The action is repeated until the elephant is habituated to offer objects picked up with its trunk to the mahout before consuming them.

The next step in training is to accustom the animal to commands given with pressure from the feet or legs, used to guide it. Mahouts must shove or tug on the animals to get them to get them go in the proper direction in the beginning. But they eventually learn which way to go from pressure applied in the sensitive area behind their ears. Pressure administered behind the animal's right ear, for example, indicates the elephant should turn left. Directional training provides a good example of the closeness of the mahout-elephant bond. Accustomed to its mahout's voice, odour, and technique of applying pressure commands, the elephant will refuse to respond to commands given by a strange mahout.

Once the initial obedience training is complete, the elephant and its mahouts enter into a four-five year course in log handling and other specialized tasks the animal is expected to perform. The animal is taught to drag logs on a chain, beginning with small logs with the size gradually increased. The second skill introduced is to teach the animal to lower its head and push a log along the ground with its tusks. It is also trained to lift logs using the tusks instead of obeying its instinct to lift it with its trunk. A mature elephant is capable of lifting up to a 400 kg. log with its tusks and dragging a load of 1.5 tons. Logging training will also include habituating the animals to noisy machinery, such as saws and trucks, which they might encounter while working.

The animals train daily for six hours in the morning , ending at noon, with Buddhist holy days off and a three month vacation in the dry season. Mahouts must hustle to keep their animals adequately fed. An adult elephant consumes 250 kg. of vegetative matter and 300 litters of water daily.

The next time the visitor to Chiangmai ooh's and ah's at the elephant show or enjoys a trek in a swaying howdah, keep in mind the years of arduous training that gave the elephant and mahout those impressive skills.

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