A Mahout Academy

Conserving Traditional Mahout Knowledge

Seven-year-old elephant with the mahout (elephant keeper) in the Elephant Conservation Center, Sayaboury, Laos, in December 2018. Laos was known as ‘The land of a million elephants’ in the past, today the elephant population in the country stands at around 800 individuals. Half of them is made up of captive elephants, and their number is in decline; the owners are not interested in breeding animals (the cow needs at least four years out of work during her pregnancy and lactation), illegal trafficking to China and other neighboring countries continues. Against this backdrop, the Elephant Conservation Center is the only one organization in Laos who is interested in maintaining the population and breeding of elephants. They have the only elephant hospital and research laboratory in Laos. The Center was created in 2011, and now the team is protecting 29 elephants that had been working in the logging industry or mass tourism, and 530 hectares of forest around Nam Tien Lake in Sayaboury. ‘If we have extra money, we buy an elephant,’ says Anthony, the manager. The primary goal of the Center, besides conservation and breeding, is to reintroduce socially coherent groups of healthy elephants to a natural forest where they can contribute to the increase of the wild population. For this reason, a special socialization programme has been developed by the biologists, where domesticated elephants learn to communicate and survive in the wild under the supervision of specialists. ‘There are not enough elephants in Laos,’ says Chrisantha, the biologist of the center. ‘We need around 5000 of a species to sustain a population, and we are nowhere near that. The efforts we are making now at least give a bit of hope for the future.’ (Photo by Oleksandr Rupeta)

Filling the Generation Gap

Laos is an oral culture. Knowledge is mainly passed on from older to younger generations through speech with limited written documents. Laotian elephant handlers use techniques that have been gathered over centuries. Because many traditional mahout families are leaving the trade we risk losing their understanding of husbandry, breeding, training and medicinal plants.

There are numerous problems connected to the ‘generation gap’ currently hitting the Laotian mahout community:

  • Inappropriate response to untrained calves.
  • A lack of experience in dealing with elephants in musth.
  • A lack of basic veterinary training to cope with first aid needs

It is important to document and conserve traditional mahout knowledge to combine it with more recent findings. As a result, we can create a wholesome approach to managing elephants under human care within Laotian culture. Learn more about the need for mahouts and soft training techniques.

The idea of a Mahout Academy comes directly from the mahout community itself. Mahouts have requested assistance to find new ways to earn a living with their elephants. Above all, they are fully aware of the risk of extinction threatening their elephants and their craft.

Therefore, we have set up a formal plan to interview older mahouts, shamans and elephant owners. Mahouts from Hongsa and Thongmixay districts (Sayaboury province) join us for a series of interviews and workshops. They share their experience with our team and other mahouts. As a result, this ancestral knowledge is not lost forever and can be passed on to future generations. We make audio and video recordings to document participants. Next, we translate the recordings for formal ethnographic work. Results will lead to a scientific publication and the creation of technical workshops for younger mahouts to attend.