Where do Unemployed Elephants End Up? (& can you change mahouts?)
By John Roberts
9 March 2016 11:39:00
I’ve said it many times: here and in the pub, in meetings and to myself in those quiet moments when I need to fill the silence “our greatest task in trying to help captive elephants is to try and change mahouts”.
It always seems disloyal to say this as they are, after all, the people without whom the business side of what we do couldn’t exist and who has the last word in whether we’re able to help their elephants through the Foundation. Mahouts have been part of my life since 1999 at least and, since 2003, I’ve had a mini-village of them living at Anantara variously doing as asked & avoiding what I’ve asked them to do.
I’ve been there for the births of their children & they were there for mine, I’ve been guests in their houses & we’ve put them up in our hotels (we've only one room at home so having them stay would be awkward), I am quite proud to have seen generations go from street beggars to land owners under our tutelage and with money we’ve diverted from our guests - by way of business and foundation - into their pockets.
When we first started I always referred to them as the cowboys of the East, the last heirs to a dying culture that the world has no space for anymore, proud of their ways, their history and their idiosyncrasies; they’re not easy to love & harder to hold, they’d rather give you a song than diamonds or gold.
Without them we’d be nothing and without us they’d be worse off, it is surely a symbiotic relationship, however I always talk of them as heirs to a 4,000 year tradition as though it was immutable.
But it is slowly dawning on us that not only are circumstances changing, after all in recent memory they’ve lived through a logging ban that saw them street begging, several tourism declines that again saw them on the street and now a vast upswing in 12hrs a day lucrative but destructive trekking opportunities.
When elephants are unemployed they’re sometimes paid to do nothing; allowing mahouts to make the living everyone deserves while keeping elephants fed and watered. This is great, it is something we practice at Anantara and perhaps even started.
However, a change in behaviour is beginning to manifest itself, mahouts who once, even when they had no work to do with their elephants, would spend time with them, even if ‘short chained’ sitting in hammocks and occasionally taking them for a walk, giving them exercise and enrichment; are now learning that this is not absolutely essential for an elephant’s survival.
Nowadays it is not uncommon for a non-working elephant to be left alone almost all day on a short chain with some food passed to it from time to time and dung cleared away while the mahout goes off to do something else - at Anantara we have got to the point of inventing activities in order to persuade them to take the elephants out and let them socialise, enrich their lives, incentivising free roaming time.
This mahout behaviour, not unexpectedly, also seems to be leading to a breakdown in mahout/elephant relationships. In the past, however unhealthy our current feelings about elephants & men might make this seem, a mahout was an elephant’s constant companion, the person who provided food, care, nice words and emotional attachment.
A study in India (where each elephant can have up to three mahouts) showed that the relationships, as defined by the elephant doing what the mahout asked without coercion, between mahout and elephant was significantly better for the ‘junior’ guy who spent the day with the elephant, cutting grass, preparing food and just generally being there. The ‘senior’ mahout who showed up for the work activities - whatever the work may be - by contrast had much more frequently to resort to punishment to coerce the elephant.
This is a theory I’ve been working on for awhile, but it came to a head last week when we went to mahout ground zero, Ban Ta Klang, to visit Lauren, the English Teacher that we sponsor to teach the next generation of mahouts, broaden their horizons somewhat - part of our long term strategy to change mahout culture! - on her last day at the school, the end of the Thai school year.
Ta Klang, as home to all the mahouts, is the place where unemployed elephants end up, paid by the Government & other organisations to keep them (literally) off the streets. It is also a village famous for keeping ‘elephants in the backyard’.
While it is always good to get there, see ex-mahouts, mahouts’ mothers, wives & kids where they choose not to live with us, it also struck me even more than usual to be a sad place. I’ve been back since but the last time I wrote about Ban Ta Klang was in 2011, re-reading I see I left optimistic and happy that there appeared to be plans for the future - last weekend it was apparent that the future hasn’t arrived yet.
There were just too many elephants. Given the trekking camps’ preference for female elephants there’s a preponderance of bulls and, following local practicalities where many working human mothers leave their babies with the family back-home and go back in search of work, hearts a-breakin’, there were a lot of elephant babies, two year olds, sometimes three to a household, looked after by a mahout grandfather while the sons had taken the mother elephants out to work in Pattaya or wherever.
For me, though, I was saddened to see so many eles that never left the chain, never managed to have front feet unshackled from each other, food was thrown when someone had time, and dung pulled out of reach and piled up.
This is a subtle change in behaviour, one I don’t think the mahouts themselves have noticed, they were proud as ever of their elephants - “see how chubby she is”, “see how much she’s grown”, “someone offered me 4M baht for him last month but I turned them down”. They talked of love & got quite offended when we suggested, in some cases, returning to the Golden Triangle: “Can you not see how well we look after our eles now?”.
“We no longer need your help.”
It does seem strange to be telling you this, but somehow it effects our work so much, a trend that sees a breakdown in mahout/elephant relationships but that doesn’t result in elephants living in the wild cannot be a good thing, the fact that these guys, people who’ve known elephants their whole lives, don’t see it happening, that might well be a disaster.
Last time I finished my piece with a quote from the manager, asking us before we criticised, to put ourselves in his shoes - well, this isn't a criticism, we already have the English teacher in the town, let's talk in this next year and see what we can help achieve for these, our friends, and their elephants.
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