Working with Elephants

Creating and maintaining a good working relationship with the elephants is a key part of the mahout’s job. This ensures the safety of the mahouts, elephants and our visitors. 

Mahouts 

A mahout is an elephant rider, trainer or keeper. Traditionally, a mahout starts out as a boy, when he is assigned an elephant by his family. The bond often remains throughout their lives. This trusting and intimate connection is crucial for a good working relationship. Being a mahout is a challenging and time-consuming job. Looking after an elephant means first of all ensuring the elephant’s physical health and wellbeing. On a daily basis, a mahout has to check the elephant’s feet, teeth, skin and stool. While elephants have very tough immune systems, they are prone to constipation, which can be fatal. A mahout also needs to wash and scrub his elephant every day. In order to ensure a varied diet, the mahouts take the elephants outside the park every day, where they can graze with the other elephants in the surrounding fields. In the park, they mainly eat pineapple leaves, bananas, sugar cane and other plants. 

The Guide (ankus) 

The guide or ankus (see image bottom left) is a mahout’s most important tool. It is with him at all times when he is with the elephant. It is used to guide and communicate with the elephant and is an extension of the mahout’s reach. The elephant guide is accepted as the appropriate tool for working with elephants by the international professional elephant community and has been accepted by all governing bodies for animal care. In order to work with an elephant, a mahout needs to establish a method of communicating and the mahouts use the language of touch and sound enabling them to communicate with them on a deeper level. The guide is designed to be a tool that provides as much information to the elephant as possible: It has a blunted point so it cannot slip off the skin causing scrapes and to ensure effective contact. Elephants soon learn to trust the language of touch paired with the language of sound, just like they would with another elephant. The elephant is trained to react when slight pressure is applied to specific points on the body. For example, when the guide is gently applied to the back of the foot, the elephant will move its foot off the ground. It is then the mahout’s job to pair that physical cue (such as the language of touch) with a verbal cue ‘taao’ in Thai for ‘foot’ (the language of sound) and when the elephant responds to both of the languages that they understand, we reward them with a treat. Since elephants are smart, they quickly learn to respond to just the verbal cue and will begin to happily lift their feet on request in a very short time. 

Some other commands you may hear at Phang Nga Elephant Park will include: 

 Come over: Maa / Forward: Hu-ee / Back: Toy-ee / Left: Sy-ee / Right: Kwaah 

Training Elephants 

Throughout most of South-east Asia, particularly in rural areas, training methods that included so-called ‘spirit breaking’ were widespread in the past, much as horses were ‘broken’ in the West. This method of training is now dying out and through education and example we are doing all we can to introduce the concept of training by positive reinforcement (rewarding the elephant for following its mahout’s commands) without any negative enforcement of dominance. We believe that spirit breaking has no place in modern elephant handling. 

Securing or tethering 

We secure or tether some of our elephants every night. Others are free to roam within a paddock enclosed by an electric fence (just like horses or farm animals in the West). Containment ensures that each elephant stays safely in the park. During the day, tethering is sometimes necessary when the mahout is not present. This is for safety reasons and during this time the elephants are given part of their daily diet.        Please feel free to ask our staff about any other concerns you may have. We are always happy to answer any questions about our elephants and management approaches.