Schooled as a Mahout on the Mekong


Schooled as a Mahout on the Mekong
Story and photos by James Michael Dorsey

As the Asian elephants transition from captivity to a more leisurely life, a traveler wishing to bond with the big beasts checks in at a trainer school in Laos.

Elephant eye

Her eye was large, the size of a silver dollar, and deep golden brown, with the longest lashes I have ever seen. We simply stared at each other for several minutes and her subtle movements showed she was looking me up and down. She eventually quit her grazing and began to explore me with her trunk, running it over my body like a TSA airport screener with a wand.

The Asian elephant, (Elephas Maximus) is a leftover, streamlined descendant of the great woolly mammoth. These elephants were first captured and tamed as work animals in the Indus valley of India as far back as 4000 B.C. They have lived side by side with man, mostly in bondage, ever since. Fortunately, that state of being is rapidly changing.

Elephant trunk

An elephant’s trunk may be the finest single appendage in the animal kingdom. This boneless hydraulic miracle has 40, 000 muscles delineated into 150,000 separate units that allow it to twist and turn in any direction, lift up to 800 pounds, smell four times keener than a bloodhound, and hold two gallons of water. Asian elephants have an elongated “finger” on the trunk tip that allows them to grasp incredibly small objects. (African elephants have a double “finger” that is prehensile.) It is also an animal that can snorkel while swimming, as I would soon find out.

Learning the Mahout Ways in Laos

I went to Laos to attend mahout school and become an elephant handler. I did it for two reasons. First was simple curiosity, but for many years I have worked, hands on, as a naturalist with whales, the largest sea creatures, and wanted to also interact with the largest land mammal.

Elephants have been used and abused by the logging industry throughout Southeast Asia for at least two centuries. In recent years, a movement has begun to segue from this life of hard physical labor to eco-tourism and it is gaining momentum rapidly. Sanctuaries, like Elephant Village that trained me, are vanguard centers for this transition. Just as whales went from being hunted to attracting visitors that simply want to see them, elephants are being set free from their chains in ever increasing numbers.

This story began about 20 miles outside Luang Prabang, Laos, on a beautiful terraced hillside overlooking the Mekong River on a former ruin site known as Baan Xang (Elephant Village). Over a century ago it was a training center for elephants used in the logging industry. In those days they were prodded with sharp hooks and kept chained at all times. Today, Baan Xang has been reborn as a sanctuary for elephants injured by that business, and those simply too old to work anymore. Just a few kilometers away, the elderly are sheltered in a deep valley under the protection of government soldiers to live out their days in leisure. For some, those days can amount to almost 100 years. It is one of the few such places that maintains an on-site veterinarian who checks the animals daily. They help to self-fund by offering mahout training for anywhere from 1-7 days. They also manufacture fine stationery paper out of recycled pachyderm poop that has become a must-have for visitors.

Conservation cycle

After a series of classes that involved elephant anatomy, physiology, history of interaction with man, and learning a series of commands in Lao, it was time to get to know my animal. Only females are used for this training as they are deemed easier to work with and not as aggressive as males. Mine was a middle-aged lady who bore severe welts around two ankles from her years in bondage as a labor elephant hauling logs in the forests of northern Thailand. I named her Surus for the one tusker that Hannibal rode over the Alps in 218 B.C., not telling her that her namesake was a male.

I have long heard what many consider to be an old wives’ tale that says if you blow into an elephant’s trunk it will take your scent and remember you forever. Whether this works of not, I took Surus trunk and blew into it. She reacted by gently caressing the top of my head. She ran her trunk around my waist like a lover dancing the tango and found a banana I had secreted in my back pocket, and after that she gave me a good hard push that I assumed meant I was OK.

I was working under the supervision of a trained mahout who had me command the elephant to lie down. They are mounted by putting your right foot on their right leg, grabbing the top of their right ear and pulling yourself up while swinging your left leg over their back, a series of moves more easily described than executed.

Feeling the Elephant

Elephant ride

I sat directly behind her head at the base of the skull, legs tucked behind the ears so my rear was over her shoulder blades. There is nothing to hold onto. You ride an elephant using balance and trust. The idea is to get to know your animal’s body language, how she responds to commands, and Surus reacted instantly to my verbal commands. From there it is a matter of using body language and shifting your weight along with the commands. Large as they are, elephants can feel your movement on their neck and respond to it accordingly.

As we began to move about the exercise yard I could feel the movement of her shoulders and ripple of her muscles. I could only liken the feeling to riding bareback on a horse where you adjust yourself to the movement of the animal’s body. I am hard-pressed to describe the feeling of sitting atop a forty-ton animal that can crush me like a bug, but chooses to not only accept my presence, but to interact with me of her own volition.

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