What is a Mahout?
A mahout is a person (traditionally male) who works with, takes care of and tends to an elephant. A mahout’s job usually starts at a young age and they often stay with the elephant for the majority (if not their whole) life. Although in some tourism camps an elephant may have multiple mahouts, as these elephants are owned by the camps and not the mahouts themselves. This arrangement is not suggested as a mahout-elephant bond is a strong, trusting one and not one that can be interchanged with other mahouts.
Traditionally there were three distinct types of mahouts, the Yukthimah who use ingenuity to outsmart their elephants, the Reghawan who use love in their training, and the Balwan who use cruelty to teach their elephants to behave.
Mahouts often spend more time with their elephant then they do their own families. Being a mahout takes pure dedication as it requires you to spend endless amounts of time caring for your elephant. In a place like the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand, the mahouts spend all day with their elephant, and then take turns amongst each other rotating a night shift to be sure the elephants have all the food, warmth, etc. they need throughout the night.
Training of a Mahout
Elephants choose their mahout, they decide whether or not they will accept them, and one of the major deciding factors in this (if done the humane way) is love. If you don’t love your elephant, the elephant will not love you. The unfortunate thing is, the tradition of a mahout is dying out, and it is much harder to find a good mahout. Now people are looking at elephants as a way to make money, and many mahouts are getting involved in this field for that reason solely, not for their love of the animal and the tradition.
The training of a mahout is often passed down from one generation to another, sort of like a family business. Back in the old days, being a mahout was a very prestigious occupation and you were seen as a hero. Now-a-days many mahouts aren’t actually trained mahouts, and really know nothing about elephants and how to care for them. This is where the biggest issue is with responsible care for domesticated Asian elephants.
Training used to be in the hands of senior mahouts and monks, now it is often done through training courses that are offered in a few different areas in Asia, apprenticeships at camps, or unfortunately through crash courses where what would normally be taught in years is taught in a few days.
Organizations like the Save the Elephant Foundation in Chiang Mai are working to better educate mahouts on the proper way to train elephants and how they can use positive reinforcements (like you would with a child) as oppose to mistreatment and abuse. Unfortunately the laws around the misuse of elephants in all Southeast Asian countries are minimal, so organizations like this are key to trying to change the mahout-elephant relationship.
Training of an Elephant
This is where the controversy starts around mahouts in Southeast Asia and beyond. There are several inhumane ways to train an elephant that unfortunately are what is giving mahouts a bad reputation. Many believe in the method of “crushing” an elephant at a young age. Which is a terrible method that involves tearing away the young elephant from their Mother too early, locking them in a tiny cage and beating them until they break their spirits. Once this process is done the elephant will know to obey their mahout, in reality the elephant is too scared not to.
Many mahouts also believe in the use of chains, bull hooks, ear halters, and other inhumane devices to help “keep their elephants in line.” Take a look at this terrifying training manual I found online that goes over some of these devices that can be used on elephants. To me it looks like something that would only be used in a horror movie, not on living, majestic creatures.
It is unfortunate that things like this happen with mahouts and their elephants in Asia. It truly gives a job of a mahout, which should be selfless, a bad reputation. Traditional mahouts that still believe in an elephant being a sacred animal and not a money maker, turn to positive reinforcement such as food to get their elephants to listen to them.They believe that showing love to their elephants will only build trust, therefore there is no need for the unnatural contraptions mentioned above.
In a documentary called, The Shocking Secrets Behind Thailand’s Elephant Tourism Industry, I watched prior to writing this article, when some mahouts were asked about the bull hooks, they said that it was the only way to tame the elephants, and some mahouts use it with more force than others. It is evident that there needs to be stronger reinforcement from the government that all mahouts must go through proper training to care for an elephant the way they should be cared for, and that’s the only way that we will see a change in the way elephants are being treated.
Mahouts are dedicated people, who have a thankless job, and it is my only hope that the proper ways of caring and training an elephant can be more readily available for mahouts. It is a given that domesticated elephants are going to exist, especially with the depleted forests in places like Thailand, and the fact that these elephants no longer know how to survive in the wild. Since domesticated elephants will continue to exist in places like Thailand, organizations are starting to popup across Asia to help better train and teach mahouts about caring for their elephants humanely, such as the Save The Elephant Foundation, Mahouts Foundation and Elephant Aid International. To this day I’m thankful for the traditional mahouts that still exist who give elephants the lives they deserve, now lets hope we will start to see a bigger transition in the mahout-elephant culture in Southeast Asia in the near future.
Click here to watch an interview on a mahout elephant relationship and what makes this ancient traditional occupation so special.
Other elephant reading material:
- The Deal Behind Riding Elephants
- On A Quest to Save Asian Elephants
- Visiting the Elephant Nature Park
Mahoutship & Elephant Conservation in Thailand
The Shocking Secrets Behind Thailand’s Elephant Tourism Industry (Video)
*Photos were all taken at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand