#PataSustain interviewed Dr. Andrew McLean, co-founder of the Human Elephant Learning Programs (H-ELP) foundation, an Australian organisation aiming to improve the welfare of working elephants in Asia. Since its foundation in 2010, H-ELP has grown significantly as Andrew’s systematic approach to elephant training is recognised as a viable and safe alternative to traditional submission-based methods. The following interview has been edited for clarity, flow, and length.
Q: Thank you for your time today. To let the reader get familiar with who you are and what you do, can you tell us a little bit about your background and the road to H-ELP Foundation?
A: How it all began for me was that I have been a horse trainer pretty much all my life as well as an academic and, in my PhD, I designed a more ethical way of training horses. I was working in Finland and a woman in Finland by the name Helena Telkanranta had been working on a WWF project in Nepal and inquired with various people to help her improve the foundation of elephant training. Eventually, she came to me when I was doing a clinic in Helsinki and it all started from there. She asked me if I’d like to come along and I said I’d love to be involved in elephant training, but I don’t know much about elephants. And it just happened that one of my wife’s pupils in dressage, Laurie Pond, was the elephant handler and trainer at the Melbourne Zoo so he said to me, come down, I’ll give you some hands-on experience – I did that and then I set off in 2007 for my first work in Nepal. There was also Tuire Kaimio involved in the project who was a very good positive reinforcement trainer and we combined forces.
The Department of Conservation in Nepal awarded us a forestry camp called Bardia in the southwest of Nepal as a pilot study. We asked for a pilot elephant and they ended up giving us a whole camp which had five young elephants to train. It was meant to be a five-year plan where we would demonstrate what we could do. By year four, they (the Department of Conservation) were so happy with it, that they decided to give us the go-ahead to roll it out in Nepal. We were still young and didn’t have enough in our group and didn’t have enough funding and India was asking for me as well, so I started the project off in India and I couldn’t really manage Nepal and India at the same time. Helena then formed her own group to manage the Nepalese side and I continued in the north and the south of India. From there, we had workshops for trainers and from many different neighbouring states in the north and south which allowed us to cover most of India.
These trainers implemented these programs after the workshops and were all monitored by the Wildlife Trust of India and so far as it’s been very successful. Of course, a few things slide because we’re not there all the time to help them but I ended up writing a book, like a manual, about elephant training and I think that’s been a bit of a deal breaker because people could then read the book and continue on and that book has been published in six different languages. So, we’ve also moved into Thailand, at the National Elephant Institute, and then Myanmar, with the Myanmar Timber Enterprises, because they are the biggest private owners of elephants in the world, they have over 3000, and then this year Laos. So, that’s how it all started.
Credit: Ben Fulton-Gillon
Q: Your background is in horse training, what are the similarities between horse and elephant training?
A: They’re very similar because when you train horses, or I should say elephants, you use operant conditioning which is a very ancient form of animal learning that doesn’t require great cognitive skills. Reinforcement can happen even subconsciously, so the similarities between the two species are enormous. All I really did when I went to Nepal for the first time was using the academic blueprint I’ve developed for horse training was to cross out the word horse and write elephant. Of course, there are different places on the elephant’s body where you stimulate the animal, but these signals are still tactile signals like they are with horses. The main difference is, of course, elephants have a trunk and so they can pick things up and use it effectively in so many ways and on top of that, elephants are more able to reason then horses. They show some high mental abilities. Although that doesn’t affect the operant conditioning very much, it does affect their reactions to many things. So, for example, what surprised me was, one time I was asking an elephant to sit, because we had already taught him to sit, but he wasn’t in a very comfortable place and just walked off and sat some distance away. So that’s what’s interesting about elephants, they have more insight into their behaviours than horses. I think it is because of the trunk. When you have a trunk, you need to be able to plan ahead and think back and have more retrieval mechanisms to memory than animals with no dexterity.
Q: In your opinion, what are the common misconceptions about activities with elephants in tourism?
A: I think some activities with elephants are highly questionable and deceptive such as elephant painting. It is presented as if the elephants are painting these masterpieces, you know, painting trees, flowers and even other elephants, I mean, you can train an elephant to hold a paintbrush and tap it onto paper through reward, but they’re not the ones doing the painting, it’s the mahouts directing their trunks by holding the elephant‘s ears or skin. What they do with the elephants is train them to hold the paintbrush in their trunk. They hold the paint brush out stiffly and the mahout moves their head and gives them little pressures up, down, left and right. So it’s really the mahout who does the painting. You never see an elephant just standing there painting a tree all by itself. With elephants holding flowers and things like that, my suspicion, and I have seen elephants do that in training, is that it’s quite coercively trained, and I can’t imagine that it is all done only with positive reinforcement. I was told by somebody quite reputable in Chiang Mai a few years ago that they sometimes use nails and other painful objects to make sure the elephant really moves his head in the correct way in order to make a painting. I would not buy such paintings.
Q: If you were to say something to those animal activists wanting to ban elephant riding, what would it be?
A: Elephant riding is certainly not any great benchmark of welfare because you can train an elephant to be ridden in the most ethical way. I see no problem with that, and that’s what our program does we improve training methods. Most of our work in India is focused on training forestry elephants that catch poachers in national parks and it has been enormously successful for the parks, in apprehending poachers and also making poachers very wary about going poaching. There’s a huge benefit in using elephants in that way. They are quiet in the forest, they go everywhere, they’re a great vehicle and you can even teach elephants to sniff out poachers because they’ve got the most amazing sense of smell.
Credit: Ben Fulton-Gillon
My feeling about the riding is that if elephants were given limited hours and a limited payload, maybe only two people, limited numbers of days a week and weeks in a year, etc. and they are managed well and looked after the best way possible, including improving their saddlery (our H-ELP project is also investing in that) , I see no problem with riding elephants and I say it’s no different riding horses. Certainly, we can train the elephants to be ridden, in some parts of Asia we work with elephants in the middle of the jungle and they’re not restrained by ropes or chains, and yet the elephants are there voluntarily, and they will come back for each session over the course of our workshops. They don’t have a problem with a human on their back directing them, provided it is done ethically. When we’re having a break a for a cup of tea, they hang around or move off into the forest, and then they come back. It’s certainly not a horrible experience for them, but a violent foundation training as we still see in many parts of Asia, where the elephants are very coercively restrained and hurt until they don’t react anymore, that has got to stop. And if it doesn’t stop then elephant riding ought to be banned.
But if we are serious about welfare, I think we should be much more intelligent, in the way we look at elephant camps that are proud to say we don’t ride elephants and yet in many cases, the elephants have very bad diets and suffer internally because of that. Animals like elephants should be eating a lot of roughage, so feeding sugar cane and bananas to excess is very bad for their digestive system. If elephants don’t get enough exercise – they need between seven and 13 kilometres a day – that’s also bad for welfare. If they don’t have the ability to socialize with other elephants that’s bad for welfare too. We have done studies on this with horses where we’ve actually isolated all the elements of human interactions with horses and what we’ve shown is that it is the same thing. A well trained ridden animal with all the other things attended to, such as the proper diet, not overfeeding sugar, plenty of exercise and plenty of ability to socialize is a much better, happier animal.
Q: Earlier this year, jungle tour operators in Nepal demanded that the government come up with regulations with minimum conditions to be fulfilled for using elephants for tourism and wildlife conservation. From your scientific perspective, what are the minimum things that should be included in such?
A: There are basically four points – some of these are very minimal things for all animals. The absolute minimum things for welfare are the ability to move according to the species’ needs, foraging according to the species’ needs (and not just limited to sugar) and socialization. Being a social animal, being able to touch and handle other animals with their trunk is vital. The fourth one is the training that needs to be ethical and controllable from the animal’s point of view. We only use voice commands, positive reinforcement and very light touch signals and no punishment and that produces much happier elephants. It produces elephants that really want to be with you too. They are the benchmarks for welfare, those four things.
Q: Do you use any kind of tools in your training that mahouts would need to use later as well? Is it possible to train an elephant without using a hook, knife or any other sharp tools like nails?
A: Absolutely. There is no need for the hook. They should be put on walls like swords are now echoes of the past. I use a stick, because my arms are not long enough, and a stick gives you an extra meter. You can just tap the elephant on the bottom of the foot and say the word ‘back’ in whatever language and very quickly it learns that the word ‘back’ comes when it gets taped and then it learns to go back from the word back. We teach them the mobility from that and then we use positive reinforcement to reward the movements. So, when the elephant goes back, the chain of events we use in our training are – that we say the word and then we tap the part of the body. When their part of the body, e.g. the leg, moves, we immediately stop tapping and then we immediately also say ‘good boy’ in whatever language we’re using and then we deliver food after that. It follows this simple process and we will also give him some tactile reinforcement in between because I’m sure that it is as important for elephants as it is for horses. So there is absolutely no need for hooks, however you can’t simply take away mahouts hooks and not replace it with some form of training, we have seen that doing that simply introduces smaller concealed “hooks” like nails and sharp objects that get used in the same way.
Credit: Ben Fulton-Gillon
Q: In your opinion, what are the major challenges for elephant camps in Asia?
A: The major challenges are caused by the world’s reaction of people who don’t know enough of what they’re talking about, but they just love animals. They are saying we should not have any captive elephants and they should all be in the wild. Or they say they shouldn’t be ridden but its ok to feed them bad diets with little exercise and no socialization. What we need to do is, recognize that the Asian elephant now exists largely in captivity (unlike its African counterpart) and so we need to take care of these captive elephants better whilst protecting the ones left in the wild as their habitats have been decimated – they’re highly endangered in the wild. Their habitat is shrinking so rapidly because of human expansion and where they do exist in the wild, there is growing conflict with humans to say nothing of the increasing scourge of poaching. Also the profile of the wild population is unnatural. For example, we see unnatural numbers for various age cohorts and the male elephant is gradually disappearing altogether. In Myanmar, for example, which has a large number of elephants in the wild – there used to be 10,000, but now that is estimated to be less than 1800. These 1800 elephants only occupy the edge of their potential habitat because they are too afraid to go to the deep jungle because that’s when they get poached. The elephants move to the edges of the forest where there are human populations because they are a little bit safer there. It is a myth to think that we can just put all the captive elephants back into the forest. If we do that, we’re essentially exterminating them. We should look after the Asian elephants, recognize that many of them will remain in captivity, and we need to do the captivity as best as we possibly can.
Q: What can the tourism industry, in particular, do to help the Asian elephants?
A: The tourism industry needs to be really well audited and it should be accountable and sponsor audit programs because they make money out of elephants. If the elephant numbers are shrinking and people are still against elephants altogether, having bad welfare through feeding programs that are all wrong, is not in anyone’s interest. A proper audit would shake up the industry throughout Asia and that would be a great hope. The tourists’ dollars are important for the economy of many of these countries. It’s easy for the Westerners to say, just boycott it all, but that’s not fair in those countries. So, support the good industry and positive stamping elephant welfare.
Q: Is there anything else you would like us to know, about yourself or the H-ELP Foundation?
A: If anyone is interested in learning more, they should visit our website h-elp.org. In Australia, we have Deductible Gift Recipient Status that means that people can claim tax deductions if they donate to us. We are purely a not for profit charity, so all donations allow us to help more elephants in Asia. One other thing is, that, in Laos, we recently went to the Elephant Conservation Center. There, Michael Vogler and Prasop Tipprasert had a great motivation to do things right and I think that will be a future key centre for this type of approach. The elephants walk to where they get bathed which is seven kilometres away, which is good welfare. They are very careful about diet and now even more careful about how much tourist can feed these animals. They’re building a giant enclosure to house the elephants at night, so they’ll all be with each and properly socialize without being on chains. They are doing their absolute best to implement the training we gave them. It’s one of the few places we have seen that are striving to truly tick all boxes.