There are currently around 13,000 tame elephants in Asia, where elephants have traditionally been used in battle, timber extraction, construction, transportation and in religious and cultural activities. In some villages people pay a small fee to be allowed to walk underneath the elephant stomach for luck and fertility. Unlike larger African elephants, which have never been domesticated in large numbers, Asian elephants have worked closely with humans for millennia.

A mature bull Asian elephant can carry 600 pounds with its trunk and tusks and pull loads of 9,000 pounds with a harness. They can also work in terrain inaccessible to vehicles, and guided log accurately into streams. Elephants at one time were preferred to machinery because they don't trample the forest and damage young trees. The are the prefect vehicle for selective cutting.

Mechanization has reduced the demand for wild elephants. Most of them were used to harvest teak in the forest, but now that most of the forests and teak are gone there is not much for them to do except work at tourist elephant villages and perform at weddings.

Many domesticated elephants that escape or are set free have no problem, living in the wild. Thailand runs a special program to reintroduce domesticated elephants into the wild as a way reinvigorating shrinking numbers of wild elephants and giving domesticated elephants an alternative to begging.


Mahouts are people who take care of, ride and command elephants. They often spend their entire lives with the same animal and develop an deep bond with it. The main rule of mahout is to dominate and control the elephants. They relationship is based on trust, feeding and punishment if the elephants are out of line. Elephant can cause considerable harm or damage if the are spooked or get angry.

Mahouts mount elephants by holding on to its ears with his hands and climbing up the trunk with his feet. They sits behind the animals neck. Mahouts take naps on top of mounts, usually taking of their sarongs and using at as a sheet. After decades of riding elephants senior mahouts end up with bow legs and ducklike gaits. One experiences mahout told the Los Angeles Times that when he was younger he say another mahout get trampled to death. He said he learned on important rule that day; never fall off.

It is said that elephant form a dog-like attachment to their human keepers. Or maybe it is the other way around. Indian mahouts sing songs about the love between a man and a woman is almost as great as that between a mahout and his elephant and songs how life is dark and full of trails and happiness only strikes briefly like lightning. When they are in the forest, mahouts sleep with their elephants on mattresses of leaves and use fires to keep wild animals away. In India, locals tell the story of one mahout, who used buy his elephant a bottle of rice liquor every payday. When the mahout himself got too drunk to stand up the elephant picked him like a log with his two tusks and carried his drunken friend home.←

Hard economic times has changed the equation somewhat, at least in some cases. Describing the situation in Thailand, Douglas H. Chadwick wrote in National Geographic, The bond between a mahout and his elephant is among the strongest, most complex unions ever forged between Homo sapiens and a fellow mammal---the only one that can last a human lifetime because elephants also live to be 70 or older.” But as cases with abuses elephant show “the bond is badly in need of repair. Many Thai mahouts are not the elephants' owners but simply men who hire on with tourist camps or rent the animals to panhandle on the streets, drawn by what looks like easy money. These keepers have no emotional ties to the elephants and little experience in how to care for or control them. The consequences can be tragic for both parties. By one estimate, perhaps a hundred mahouts are killed by elephants in Thailand every year. [Source: Douglas H. Chadwick, National Geographic, October 2005]

Mahout and Elephant Communication

Mahouts control the elephants with verbal commands and barefoot nudges and kicks to the back of the ears and occasional jabs with a stick or devise that looks like a conductors baton with a hook . Mahouts constantly move their feet to guide the elephants. One kick might tell an elephant to stop. Another rtelssl it rollover in the mud.

Asian elephants can understand a wide range or verbal commands from their mahouts. Usually a mahout can control with a few shouted words. Trained elephants can understand bout 30 compounds. such “Chai!” (Circle), “Pichu!” (Backward), “Chai!” (Circle), “Tere!” (Sleep), “Utha!” (Lift one leg), “Biri!” (Lift with the trunk), “Dhar!” (Catch with the trunk).

If an elephant doesn't respond, the mahout may deliver a few carefully placed pokes with a stick, a metal prod with a sharp hook or a wooden spear. "A sharp jab in a sensitive place, such as the ear, the belt can cause even a tough bull elephant to squeal in pain." Ankle chains that sometimes have inward spikes and are attached by ropes to the howdah if an elephant really get out of line.

If an elephant sticks his handler with its tusk or trunk the handler hits back with a sticks. If the elephants are disturbed, mahouts whisper sweet words Describing a Thai mahout at work, Douglas H. Chadwick wrote in National Geographic, Pasuk strolls over to rub the elephant's tummy and, in the Suay language, mumbles something like, "Hey Sonny Boy, how ya doing?" "Boon Num is quite gentle," Pasuk insists. "But he needs the sweet talk to soothe him. You have to have confidence in yourself and pay attention, know how he thinks, what he is feeling. When he doesn't want to be ridden, he will turn his back on you and growl." [Source: Douglas H. Chadwick, National Geographic, October 2005]

Mahout Training

Douglas H. Chadwick wrote in National Geographic, “I try my hand at mahout work at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in the northern town of Lampang. Recruits enroll in a lengthy program that covers the essentials of daily maintenance, diet, and medical care. They learn a long list of commands and ways to gauge an animal's emotional state and are advised on when to enforce control and when to ease off. While they're trained in use of the ankus to apply pressure to sensitive points such as the base of the ear, they're also taught that a skilled rider uses this sharp-tipped goad less as a club than as a wand, scarcely touching skin. [Source: Douglas H. Chadwick, National Geographic, October 2005]

“My lessons come from Shinakorn Phongsan, nicknamed Jawn, who shows me how to order Prathida (Princess) to kneel so I can mount. But even using her foreleg as a step, I can barely reach her back with my hands. "Try this," Jawn says. Commanding Prathida to lower her head onto the ground, he runs up her trunk and leapfrogs straight over her forehead onto her neck. As I practice the move, stumbling around on her huge face, her patience eases my qualms about what it will be like to actually ride her.

“Rising a dozen feet off the ground astride Prathida's neck, I feel the stiff hairs on her skin prickle my legs as I practice steering by wriggling my toes behind her ears while calling out ben (turn), soc (back up), and other commands from the more than 40 to which she responds. Like a proud father, Prathida's mahout basks in her accomplishments. Jawn was a groundskeeper at the center before deciding he liked elephants so much that he wanted to sign on as an apprentice, then train to become a full mahout. "The best part is getting over your fear and making a friend," he says. Now if he visits his family for several days, he returns to find Prathida acting mopey. "The funny thing is, I miss her too," he says. "I think about her a lot when I'm away."

Domesticating Wild Elephants

Asian elephants have been hunted, captured, and trained for use in war, commerce and transport for around 4,000 years in countries such as Thailand and India. When the capturing elephants was still practiced in Thailand, subdued elephants were sold at market or entered into government service, depending on their abilities. Traditionally handsome tuskers were reserved for war training, and strong, steady elephants were trained as baggage and transport animals.

Working elephants are rarely breed in captivity. Wild herds are the primary source. It has traditionally been much cheaper, easier and more efficient to catch elephants in the forest and train them than to allow adult elephants to breed and wait 22 months for a calf to born and wait an additional 10 years for the calf to grow to working size. Elephants raised in captivity have no fear of their human handlers and thus could became dangerous when full grown. More importantly an elephant out of commission during the 22 month gestation period and two years of nursing as not a very profitable elephant. Working elephants often don't reproduce so well anyway because they are too tired.

As tamed elephants are predominantly captured wild animals with wild genes, experts are divided about whether to refer to them as "domesticated," a term which usually means an animal has been selectively bred. Some prefer the term "captive" or "domestic" elephants instead.

Catching Wild Elephants

To catch wild elephants the Indians drove herds into stockades; the Vietnamese ran them into lakes and harpooned their ears and dragged them from the lake. Elephants usually kept one step ahead of their pursuers. Signs that elephants have been around include mashed grass, dung, wallows.

In Sri Lanka, large herds are rounded up like cattle on a cattle drive. In 1979 one herd of 150 wild elephants grouped in clusters over a 150 square mile area was herded 30 miles to Wilpattu National Park. "Night after night," wrote naturalist Lyn de Alwis, "our enthusiastic rangers and other trained employees---with thunderous firecrackers, brilliant flares, bonfires, and their own raucous hooting, howling, and caterwauling---persuaded recalcitrant elephants to abandon their familiar haunts for places unknown, and not to sneak back!...Because of its complexities, the relocation of those animals took full 12 months."

In some places, certain tribes are responsible for catching elephants. The Suay tribe of eastern Thailand lassoed the feet of wild elephants from the backs of tame ones. Not surprisingly they look to the spirits for support. One Suay elephant catcher told National Geographic, "Dangers awaited us always, especially from fighting between wild elephant families and our mounts...The wives could not cut their hair or speak to strangers when the men were away. We spoke only a ghost language to bring us luck and not the let the elephants know we were coming.←


Catching Wild Elephants in Thailand

In Thailand , according to Reuters, tamed elephants were used to lure and maneuver wild herds into funnel-shaped bamboo or teak stockades, known as kraals, during great elephant drives in Thailand's northern provinces and southern seaboard from at least the seventeenth century onwards. Torches and flares were set off behind the animals, to usher them into the kraal, and a gatekeeper high above dropped a heavy gate to lock the herd inside. Tame elephants were also used to lure wild individuals away from their herds in the country's northeast. [Source: Reuters December 23, 2007; Elephants of Thailand in Myth, Art and Reality by Rita Ringis, Oxford University Press, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals]

Reuters reported: “Once trapped, the youngest, easiest to train, elephants, were lassoed and tied to stakes, and unsuitable animals freed. - Pulled into tight, wooden "crush" enclosures, the elephants were tamed into obedience by a method called the "phaajaan", or breaking of the spirit, which is still used today. - Trapped barely able to move for days or even weeks in the crush cage and deprived of sleep, they are alternately starved or fed, until they accept chains or harnesses without a struggle and respond to rewards. [Ibid]

“In 2002, animal welfare group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), protested against the use of the phaajaan in Thailand. The group called for a boycott of the Thai tourism industry, which now employs the majority of trained elephants, because of the cruelty of this traditional method of elephant training. The government denies allegations of cruelty. [Ibid]

Catching Wild Elephants in Assam

In Assam two mahouts ride on a “koonkie”, or trained elephant. On rides on the neck with a lasso to capture wild elephants. the other stands on the elephants rump prodding it on with jabs from a metal spear. The mahouts hope to lasso a young elephant separated from its herd. But this easier said than done. Females carefully guard their young and large male tuskers, capable of tearing apart a trained elephant charge any intruders.

Describing the capture of young 13-year-old male elephant Paul Watson wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “With two of his “mahouts” riding trained elephants to block the flanks, Rabba pursued his quarry on the back of an elephant he caught 30 years ago..They chased the younger male for about an hour. When the tired animal stopped to eat, Rabbha quickly roped him.”

“His team of three elephant dragged him about three miles. They bound his legs and neck with heavy ropes of sisal fiber and lashed him to three eucalyptus trees, They ropes were wrapped six times around each hind leg and tied back to a 45-degree angle, forcing most of the trapped elephant’s enormous weight forward. Day and night, he is always off balance.”

Elephant Round-up in Mysore

One of the last great elephant round-ups was held in the Begur State Forest near the town of Mysore in southern India in 1969. To capture the elephants, a mob of several thousands of beaters making noise with whistles, bugles, shotguns, bamboo clappers and shouts and a group of 35 domesticated elephants known as “kumkies” surrounded a herd of 66 elephants and drove it into an 11-acre stockade made with 8000 twenty-foot-long teak logs and bamboo fencing. [Source: Harry Miller, National Geographic, March 1969]

The wild elephants were surrounded in a forest and gentle as possible directed towards the stockade by the beaters, mahouts and kumkies. Fires were light along the river to keep them from escaping in that direction and great care was taken not panic the animals into a stampedes. A large tusker guarded a position next to stockade that was the most likely escape route. A kumkries and mahouts were like horse and cowboys rounding up strays and returning them to the herd.

The stockade was built with teaks logs that were sunk in four-foot-deep holes dug with out incredibly long-handled shovels. Pumps were put in a nearby the river and showers were set up in the stockade to keep the elephants cool and damp and to prevent them from wilting in the sun. At the opening of the stockade was hinged wooden drop gate, supported by two 27-foot-high teak logs, that dropped when the animals were inside.

Stands for set up around the stockade for spectators who paid as much as $66 a piece for their seats. In addition to the beaters, watchmen and support people were hired. A total of a 1,500 people paid 40 cents a day and given food for the duration of the round-up.

Getting the Elephants into the Stockade in Mysore

The most difficult part of the round up occurred when the herd of wild elephants approached the stockade. Sensing there was a trap the herd stood outside the gate for 15 minutes. One of the female elephants charged the kumkies to protect her calf, but in the end she and others gave up their stand entered the stockade. When they were all inside a rope hold the gate open was slashed with a knife and crashed shut.

The captured elephants were later enticed into the roping stockade with sugar cane where they were elephants assistants ran underneath the wild elephants and slipped ropes around their hind legs so the animals could be tied to a tree. Kumkies pushed against the wild elephants to keep the wild elephants distracted so they wouldn't fatally kick the assistants who were paid a salary of $20 a month. And a crowd watched as some men lassoed the wild elephants around their neck and others scrambled onto kumkries like rodeo clowns escaping from a bull. It took 10 days to secure all 86 elephants to a tree.

Mahouts were assigned to each wild elephant. For the younger mahouts it was their first elephant. They stayed with elephants around the clock eating and sleeping with the elephants, dressing the wounds from the ropes. Punishment for bad behavior was meted out with a stick and good behavior was rewarded with chunks of sugar cane. After being broken and trained In 1969 38 of the elephants were auctioned off for $22,093.

Breaking a Wild Elephant

Elephants are one of the few wild animals that can be trained as an adult. Even so as rule, the younger an elephant is the easer it is to train. Breaking a wild elephants taks about a month. They more he tries to resist the deeper the ropes cut into the elephant’s skin. Watson wrote: “When he struggles against his bands, the eucalyptus trees creak like ship timbers against the sea, The ropes rub his oozing wound and his whipping captors hit him with a stick and then gently strike his trunk...It is tough life, and the torment won’t end until the elephant submits to the men who pull the ropes, wave fire in his eyes each night and sing to him of past glory,”

At night one of the mahouts “climbs on the trapped elephant’s back, while another strokes his trunk, and a third thrusts a flaming torch towards his bulging eyes...They want the elephant to overcome his fear of fire, and obey the men who control it. To sooth him, they sing a song” with “verse passed down through generations of mahouts from the 16th century.”

As the captured elephant tugged on his ropes and let out rumbling growl a mahout told the Los Angeles Times, “He’s crying. He’s missing his folks. We also feel bad, but we’re just doing our duty. Once he’s through all of his training, maybe in two or three years, he’ll be part of our family. But not before that.” Animals rights advocates and environmentalist have criticized the practice as being unnecessarily cruel. The elephant’s captors says they try to be as humane as possible,. They said the rope urn and wound and tend with cottons balls and a basting brush and the elephant are given daily baths with trained elephants looking on.

Training Domesticated Elephants

Elephants in the wild live in hierarchal groups and are used to taking orders from other elephants. Captive elephant readily adapt to commands from humans. Training takes six months to a year and the elephants learn about 30 commands.

Elephants are trained using a combination of food, affection, rewards, discipline and punishments with goads and hooks. By the time they are three says Dinerstein they can respond to commands such as lie down, roll on your side, stand up, lean forward, break a branch, look with your trunk, bring feet together, stand still, sit still, trumpet, attack, drink, squirt water over the head, drop it, quit and stop. They are also taught to march in single file.

At least once a day the wild elephants were carefully taken to the river for a bath. The mahouts talk to them constantly and sing them lullabies during their feeding and bathing time. Three kumkies were needed to surround the largest wild elephants and they had to watched every second to make sure they didn't escape. In the evening after they have been fed and bathed, kumkies are shackled like camels to keep from wandering to far away and released into the forest to forage for food.

Mahout also receive training, Peeci, a small town in Kerala, is the home o the world's only elephant driving school. Perspective mahouts enter a months-long course and large to control the elephants through foot movement and verbal cues. A sign outside re school reads: "BEWARE! Elephant driving school nearby. No thoroughfare allowed."

Training Domesticated Elephants, Torture and Animal Rights

Some methods used to train elephants are quite cruel. A videotape secretly shot by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) by animal rights activists in Thailand showed villagers training an elephant for a show by beatings its head and body with metal hooks while the animal screamed in pain.

Mike Snow wrote in the Washington Post: “Most complaints of elephant abuse focus on the way the animals are tamed.” Some places employ “a humane but time-consuming "tickling" method, but many camps still use phaajaan (the Thai word for "crush"), a method of domesticating baby elephants that has been practiced in Thailand for thousands of years. This ceremony involves separating youngsters from their mothers, tying them up in a confined space, jabbing them with knives, heated irons, burning cigarettes and bamboo sticks embedded with nails, pummeling them with stones and other projectiles and depriving them of food, water and sleep. It lasts for up to six days, until a shaman senses that the elephant's spirit is broken. Afterward, the animal is never again permitted to see its mother. [Source: Mike Snow, Washington Post, May 4, 2008]

”Phajaan“ was documented by journalist Jennifer Hile in her award-winning film, “Vanishing Giants“. According to National Geographic it “depicts villagers dragging a four-year-old elephant from her mother into a tiny cage, where she is beaten and deprived of food, water, and sleep for days. As the teaching progresses, the men yell at her to raise her feet. When she missteps, they stab her with bamboo spears tipped with nails. The prodding continues as she learns to behave and accept people on her back.”

Snow wrote: “Animal rights groups condemn not only the phaajaans but also "imprisoning" the animals and training them to perform tricks. "Elephants don't have to dance, paint pictures or roll logs," says Ashley Furno, senior campaign coordinator for PETA. "We're interested in protecting them so that they can remain in the wild, free to spend their days foraging for food, bathing and interacting with their families and other elephants." In 2003, PETA mounted an ongoing Asia-wide ad campaign protesting elephant abuse that has garnered attention in Germany, Sweden, Singapore, the United Kingdom and other countries that have traditionally contributed to Thai tourism. [Snow, Op. Cit]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2012

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