Elephants are by far some of the smartest creatures on our planet. They have complex social structures, readily engage with people and other animals, and have even been shown to exhibit self-awareness. Being able to bridge the communication gap with elephants has proven to be a straightforward endeavor overall; elephants in human care are talking to us all the time through body language, rumbles, grunts, trumpets, and even chemical signals (which unfortunately we are unable to perceive without laboratory analysis!). Training in SE Asian range countries has evolved quickly over the past thirty years much like it has in the West. Animal behavior has become more and more understood and developed into a science with measured actions and definable results. However there is an art to what has been handed down generation to generation in the mahout culture and much of it is exactly what has proven to work in textbook training methods.
Mahouts work elephants in a hands-on environment with charges that have, for the most part, been born in human care. Traditionally an elephant and their mahout are together their entire lives. The bond of trust between them is hard to put into words. It is important to remember that 1/3 of all Asian elephants in their range countries live in captivity. For the purpose of this article, AES will focus on the training of elephants that are born and raised around humans, which encompasses a long line of individuals living in various camps throughout the region.
From the moment a baby elephant hits the ground after birth it is essential that it become accustomed to the other elephants and humans in its life. Getting the new herd member used to people right off the bat gives the handlers the opportunity to perform medical evaluations and procedures as soon as possible if needed. Luckily, the best teacher of the new baby is its mother, who is already living in close proximity to people.
Just like with human children, baby elephants are taught age appropriate behaviors as they get older. They are trained to open their mouths, have their trunks manipulated, their eyes checked, receive foot care, be comfortable with tethers, and even to get their blood drawn. However the most valuable thing to teach a young elephant is manners around people and other elephants. While the mother and aunties do a fantastic job of teaching the little one how to be an elephant, people need to reinforce good behavior that keeps their handlers safe. Mostly this involves keeping their trunks to themselves unless asked otherwise!
Elephants can learn upward of 40 different behaviors, oftentimes the only limit being what the trainer can come up with to teach. Training is enriching for all animals, humans alike. Who doesn’t like to learn new things and put them to use in their daily lives? Because elephants have such massive brains, keeping them mentally stimulated is an integral part of keeping them healthy both inside and out.
Communicating with an elephant involves verbal cues, physical cues, and body language on the part of the human. But elephants have an advantage over us: They can hear and make sounds above and below our range of hearing and speaking and they have a complex range of chemical communication we cannot perceive. So we as the trainer must be diligent in making ourselves clear in our messaging. Because of this, many trainers will say that working in direct contact with an elephant becomes a sort of energy dance shared between the two involved. This continues to build trust with time and eventually words are no longer needed. However that does not mean that training stops for elephant and mahout. New situations will come about and the need for a new behavior or retraining of an old one is always a possibility, hence why the trust between elephant and mahout is essential.
*The views and expressed opinions in this article are those by Asian Elephant Support, and are not necessarily those of TripAdvisor, Inc. Any cited research is sourced by Asian Elephant Support and has not been necessarily verified or independently evaluated by TripAdvisor, Inc.
 Plotnik, de Waal, Reiss, “Self-Recognition in an Asian Elephant,” PNAS Vol. 103, No. 45, pp. 17053–17057
 Rasmussen, “Testosterone and dihydrotestosterone concentrations in elephant serum and temporal gland secretions,” Biology of Reproduction 1984 Mar. 30(2): pp. 352-362
 Rasmussen, Schulte, “Chemical Signals in the Reproduction of Asian and African Elephants,” Animal Reproduction Science 1998 Oct;53(1-4): pp. 19-34
 Olson, Deborah, Elephant Husbandry Resource Guide, https://elephantconservation.org/stay-informed/elephant-husbandry-resource-guide/ p. 144
 Olson, Deborah, Elephant Husbandry Resource Guide, https://elephantconservation.org/stay-informed/elephant-husbandry-resource-guide/ p. 32
 Olson, Deborah, Elephant Husbandry Resource Guide, https://elephantconservation.org/stay-informed/elephant-husbandry-resource-guide/ p. 25