Joyce Poole has a PhD in elephant behaviour from Cambridge University and is co-founder of Elephant Voices, an organisation aimed at securing a kinder future for elephants through research and the sharing of knowledge.
Joyce has studied the social behaviour and communication of elephants for more than 30 years, dedicating herself to their conservation and welfare.
At Elephant Voices Joyce writes: ‘As the role of elephants as beasts of burden declined, people sought to put them to other work instead. In recent years the use of elephants in tourism has become an industry in itself. Elephant-backed safaris, elephant polo, elephant football, elephant painting, elephant orchestras, elephant orphanages, elephant begging have each become popular sight-seeing activities and/or destinations for foreign visitors. While some of these activities provide a source of income to care for needy elephants, others are exploitative and mask cruel realities.’
Tricks in Asian elephant circuses or shows may also include basketball, throwing darts at balloons, twirling hoops in the air, balancing on their front and back legs, headstands, playing musical instruments, riding bicycles or painting.
Joyce says that ‘to persuade an elephant to work – including to carry tourists – a mahout must ensure that it follows instructions at all times. This, by [traditional] necessity, means breaking down an elephant’s independent will. To do so, calves are chained, beaten, deprived of social interaction. It is an ugly truth.’
So, why is it an ugly truth?
In order to ‘train’ the baby elephant (calf) to perform tricks, often a mother and her calf will be separated far too early in the development of the calf, usually at about three years, but sometimes as early as 18 months. Calves are naturally weaned from their mother at about three to five years of age.
Males usually leave the herd at around 10 years of age, but often still hang around in bachelor groups of other young males – associations that can last for years or lifetimes. .
Female elephants are social creatures and form strong family ties. In the wild, female elephants stay with their herd for their lifetime, under the leadership of an older female also known as the matriarch. In fact, young calves are attended to, not only by their mothers, but also by other females in the herd – grandmothers, sisters, aunties and cousins. See this short video clip for a powerful example.
There has been much documentation of females welcoming newborns into herds with behaviour such as standing close to the mother and calf, touching with their trunks, trumpeting and other behaviours.
There’s also been documentation of herds appearing to ‘console’ a mother when they have lost a calf, or had one taken away. When coming across the remains of one of their herd, elephants have been known to go through what could only be described as mourning; sniffing and trumpeting and often staying around the bones for days at a time. They have also been known to carry around the bones of their former family members for days.
So, mothers and their young have strong social bonds, important for the health and wellbeing of the young as well as the herd. When these are broken, there are many possible implications. One of the criticisms of the elephant entertainment industry is that calves are taken from their mothers at an age when the bond and the support of the mother and the herd are still needed. This enforced separation can be devastating for the baby as well as the mother and the herd.
If you‘ve seen an elephant perform, no doubt you’ve marvelled that an elephant can kick a soccer ball or throw darts or paint. It is, however, a myth to believe that this comes naturally. It doesn’t. If you were to watch them in the wild or roaming free at elephant sanctuaries, these tricks would be nowhere in sight.
Although ‘positive reinforcement’ techniques are slowly being introduced to mahouts in Asian countries, older, traditional techniques rely on ‘breaking’ elephants, which, as the name suggests, involves ‘breaking’ the elephant’s spirit into submission. This includes beatings, the use of restraints such as ropes and chains, isolation from his or her herd and so on.
Carol Buckley, who has a lifetime of experience with elephants (and is well considered in the elephant industry), is a proponent of positive reinforcement techniques, as is Australian Dr Andrew McLean.
Carol says ‘traditionally, mahouts are indoctrinated that elephants can be controlled through dominance. Compassionate Elephant Management (CEM) is an alternative – an effective way to manage elephants using positive reinforcement.’
CEM draws on years of work, and according to Carol, ‘is a system of caring for and training a captive elephant, free of punishment and infliction of pain, that enables a mahout and elephant caregiver to manipulate the elephant’s behaviour, while manoeuvring safely around or atop him/her, in a free-contact environment’.
The traditional ‘breaking’ of elephants is definitely not free of punishment or infliction of pain. The term ‘phajaan’ is often used when describing the breaking of elephants. A quick Google search will reveal the cruelty of this practice.
Documentary maker Michelle Mizner, who spent two years making a documentary on elephants with Don Tayloe, The Last Elephants, says their documentary was a ‘passion project’ which began as a small story about an elephant hospital in Thailand but soon grew into something bigger.
‘As we were filming and made aware of the hardships faced everyday by domesticated elephants and the humans who care for them, we knew we had an urgent responsibility to share,’ says Michelle.
She says, ‘People love elephants. So it’s heartbreaking to learn that something as innocent and alluring as an elephant painting can actually be the result of serious torture.’
The Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation says ‘if you think it’s cute to watch an elephant perform you would change your mind if you saw the “behind the scenes” training which is more often than not cruel, abusive and pain-inflicted. Training an elephant for circus shows is unnatural and cruel.’
Not only is the training cruel, but the elephant is made to perform the same repetitive tricks over and over, day after day. Often, such as when painting, a mahout is ready with a ‘correction’ via bullhook if an elephant makes an incorrect or unintended brush stroke. This, obviously, is far from natural; elephants do not paint in the wild.
If you want to know how elephants really act, give yourself a wonderful treat and read Katherine Connor’s blog, starting at the start. I’ve read it twice now and it runs the full gamut of the trials and tribulations of saving elephants and running a sanctuary.
English born, Katherine established BLES in northern Thailand after a holiday in Asia where she fell in love with baby elephant, Boon Lott. When Boon Lott died from abuse and neglect, Katherine’s life changed forever and she made a promise to help.
This is what Katherine wrote in a journal entry on 6 May 2010: ‘When I first set out to create BLES in memory of Boon Lott, I was laughed at. People thought I was crazy and told me to my face that I would never be able to do it. Obviously my confidence was shattered, but my faith and determination to prove that one woman could make a big, positive, difference drove me onwards. If nothing else, I wanted the world to know about Boon Lott — the incredible, baby elephant who suffered, yet proved and taught me so many things about medicine, husbandry, and life. I didn’t want Boon Lott to end up being just another statistic — another baby elephant snatched from this life prematurely. Boon Lott deserved much more than that and I want to thank you, every single one of you, who is reading this right now, for believing in me and giving me the strength to create BLES in Boon Lott’s memory.’
Katherine and her team have certainly made a difference in the lives of these animals. If you love elephants, I urge you to find out more here.
Text: Lisa Louden