Using Positive Feedback for Training Elephants in Thailand

Elephant and MahoutThe instructive hand guides the elephant by the ear, in Chang Rai’s Golden Triangle Elephant Camp. Photo by Asher Jay

In Thailand, where over half the extant population of Asian elephants are captive animals, the growing concern for their welfare and health has sparked the need for more humane training methods and ways of tending to the animal.

Human beings have exploited Asian elephants for centuries throughout their range of distribution. Asiatic elephants have long been subjugated and utilized as weapons on the battleground, as transport by the tourism sector, as organic machines by the logging industry, as field plows by farmers, as spectacles in circuses, and as mobile displays in religious and state parades.

Wild populations of this species have been affected by habitat loss and poaching, which means as the Asian elephant grows increasingly threatened by extinction in the wild, it becomes imperative to improve the welfare of captive animals through environmental enrichment and the cultivation of natural behaviors through the development of social relationships between the animals. This has meant that the way in which these animals are tamed and taught to obey their mahouts has needed to evolve from the use of ropes, bull hooks, harsh commands, and violence to a more nurturing model that is based on positive feedback mechanisms.

Target Training Reward MechanismAn elephant receives a banana for accurately meeting the “target” as desired. Photo by Asher Jay

This method is called “target training” and during my visit to Ban Ta Klang, I got to witness Dr. Gerardo Martinez from African Safari effectively use this method of rewarding desired behavioral outcomes from each elephant with bananas and simple, positive commands such as “Good, good.”

The concept is simple: first a “target” is fashioned out of a bamboo pole, some fabric, and duct tape to look like a giant ear swab. This tool is then used as a “target” that the elephant being trained will learn to make contact with.  In most iterations of target training, this is a round object attached to a stick or pole.

The first step is to show the animal that intentional contact with the target will earn it a reward, e.g. a banana. Once the animal begins associating the target with rewards, he or she advances to more complex targets and relational rewards. Within three hours I saw an elephant pick up the need to make specific contact with a desired body part, as well as a required shift in direction, to meet the target. During this time the command “side” was uttered, to denote the need for this directional contact. The elephants enjoy learning something new that doesn’t come at the cost of violence being done to them, and instead affords them a pail full of bananas. I assume a pail full of bananas to an elephant feels like a visit to a bakery for me.

Target Contact During TrainingThe elephant moves within the pen to make contact with the “target” as desired, which earns it the reward of bananas. Photo by Asher Jay

The training exercises are executed within a three-sided, lattice-structure, wooden enclosure that serves as a holding pen for the elephant in question. The same pen will then find use during veterinarian visits for these animals, as the structure would have already imprinted as a positive space for the animal where it received training, no violence, and many bananas. This will make it easier for the vets to maneuver and treat these large animals exercising the same system of directives.

I cannot underscore the patience and courage of conviction it requires to rewire and retrain an animal that is smarter, stronger, and significantly heavier than an average abused golden retriever. The animal not only needs time to orient itself to this new paradigm, language, and relationship of trust, love, and nurturing, but also time to heal from past damage and wounds both physical and psychological.

It requires a tremendous amount of patience to work on the elephants in this region, as well as to work with the mahouts, who also need to be reset to using a positive feedback mechanism—one they have not experienced themselves, as they are deemed the lowest strata of society. Other factions of society do not respect them, and this has led to a complete disempowerment of mahouts and their families. Society maligns and abuses the mahouts, they in turn lash out on their elephants, and the loop of violence gets reinforced each day as they way things are done. Gerardo, in partnership with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF), Zoological Parks Organization (ZPO), and Veterinarians International (VI) are paving the way to a new framework of harmonious coexistence between elephants and humans.

Positive examples were evident in Chang Rai where GTAEF has seeded a better way of life for over 20 pachyderms in the vicinity. These animals are afforded chains that allow a large range of motion, up to a hundred feet, unlike in Surin, where they have less than three feet of mobility. However, since most of these animals have been on tight leashes all their life, many of them take a while to get used to this new (relative) freedom. They get the space to be themselves, to socialize with one another, take baths together, and go on long walks through the forests.

GTAEF’s founder John Roberts had the following to say, “Certainly all elephants should be wild, where they are free to make their own decisions and perform ecosystem services. This is the reason a large amount of our funding and effort is now being focused on keeping wild elephants wild as well. We have MOUs in three Thai National Parks to protect wild elephants, and we have established 18,000 hectares of forest in Cambodia’s Cardamom forests, to ensure these animals have a critical corridor and habitat intact.”

The Connection between ElephantsMaking contact, one elephant reaches out to another during a group walk with tourists. Photo by Asher Jay

When I asked John about establishing conservancies or ranches for the captive Asian elephants to be rehabilitated to, he responded that it wasn’t possible. “Thailand alone has around 3,500 non-wild elephants and this country is the size of Texas, there isn’t enough wild to put them back into, so a well-planned tourism activity such as ours is a great way to do that–they get to walk around as a group, meet new people and lead a rich and varied elephant life, while our guests get to learn about elephants and a little of what it is like to be a mahout. The elephants enjoy it: there seems to be a modern misconception that captive elephants live entirely in misery and fear no matter how you look after them. I have to say that in 16 years of living among elephants I have seen no evidence of this–I have seen elephants looked after badly and I would never seek to bring a wild elephant into captivity but I’m entirely comfortable with this as a way to keep those already in captivity fed, watered, and amused.”

Elephants with their mahouts, after going on a walk with tourists, forage for food in the forest. Photo by Asher Jay

I have come to realize over the course of my visit that this is an incredibly sensitive complex concern, one that needs a multi-prong strategy, as one solution does not fit all the regional contexts. I get why so many organizations had to band together to help these animals, as none of them have been able to experience success alone. It is like treating a patient with multiple injuries, and everything needs to be addressed at once of it results in a failure, i.e. a fatality.

In effect it is a Grey’s Anatomy episode, but with elephants, and the species needs veterinary care, public awareness campaigns, legislative protection, physical space, education and outreach amongst local communities and mahout families, as well as continued monetary input. I asked why there hasn’t been a government attempt to buy out all privately owned elephants, but it quickly became apparent to me this was a substantive math problem.

Each elephant costs anywhere from 75,000-100,000 dollars, now multiply that by 3,500 captive animals and you’ll see just how much needs to be kept aside by the government to enable this. However you can help, you can support such alternate approaches to this issue, you can also be like me, and fly there to brain storm on the ground with various stakeholders.

Asher Jay with ElephantIn Ban Ta Klang with a young captive elephant who decided to hug me. Photo of me taken by Christine Evangelista