Elephant lovers Dag Goering and Maria Coffey tell believe a science-based training method, without punishment, works well for elephants

Dag Goering, a veterinarian and photographer from Canada, was particularly interested in camels. So he packed his bags and left for Bikaner University in Rajasthan, where he wanted to study the desert animal in great detail. That was until he came face-to-face with an elephant. Around that time, Jaipur was celebrating the birth of a baby elephant after a long time. Excitement was everywhere and Dag’s service, as a veterinarian, was sought. He went to examine the baby when an adult elephant grabbed him by the wrist. “There I was, looking into its eye. It was scary and exhilarating at the same time, as I did not know if that look was well-intentioned or whether I was going to die in the next few seconds,” he says.

Presenting a collection of his photographs of elephants at David Hall in Fort Kochi, Dag talks about his relationship with elephants.

The incident in Jaipur touched him and Dag returned to Canada a transformed man. “I was absolutely in love with elephants. An elephant’s face may not be expressive, but behind its eyes is a world which is as vast as mine.” His wife and writer Maria Coffey shared his fascination for the elephant and the two decided to travel to India to learn more about them. The trip brought them straight to Kerala in late 2007 where they spent time visiting almost all the places where elephants were found—in the wild and in captivity. They also interacted with the forest department and animal welfare activists to get an overview of the problems and challenges faced by the species. Meanwhile, the information gathered on the field was backed by extensive reading and research.

The next year, they went to Thailand and spent two years analysing the ground realities surrounding captive elephants. “We learnt that this huge animal is facing huge problems, such as habitat loss, poaching and ill-treatment at the hands of trainers. And we wanted to do something to help them. We wanted to make the world a better place for elephants,” says Maria.

They formed the Elephant Earth Initiative in 2008, an organisation, which seeks to improve the lives of elephants. “We discuss issues the animals face today and the communities that share their living space. And we try to come up with scientific, pragmatic solutions,” Dag says. The Initiative offers support to grassroots organisations and helps in raising awareness and throwing open platforms for discussion.

The couple travelled extensively in Africa, too, observing the great creature in the wild. “Once you watch a herd in the wild, you would know that the elephant is not meant to be in captivity. All you feel is pity,” Dag says. Once in Kenya, they witnessed a super herd (several herds converging together). “They kept coming and it was like a river of elephants. There were babies, females, aged ones, they could easily have been over 300 in number. And they were such a happy bunch. Seeing them and then seeing an elephant in a confined space is just heart-breaking,” Maria says.

Change may not happen overnight, but a little step could make a difference, the couple feels. In Thailand, for instance, they helped bring a science-based training method, which involves no whips and hooks. “It is not punishment-based and the mahouts have taken to it quite well. The method is working well and both the animals as well as the mahouts look forward to the training session,” Dag explains. The reward-based ‘target training’ method has been used for over 50 years in Hollywood to train animals. The method would work in India too, Dag says.

Elephants are as emotionally complex as human beings, research reveals, being extremely affectionate, intelligent, responsive to touch, love and sadness. But if they are being harassed, they get easily aggressive. In South-East Asia, habitat loss is one of the primary reasons for increasing incidence of elephant-human conflict. “It is stressful for them, they need space, they need food, they need water,” Dag says.

Though in comparison, African elephants are more relaxed, since they have a lot of space, poaching (for ivory) is a serious issue. In September this year, Dag and Maria led a fund-raising walkathon, ‘100 Miles for Elephants’ in Kenya. It was a success and they raised $13,000, which was donated to a local community anti-poaching programme. They plan to organise such expeditions as this to other countries, too.

Dag and Maria also run a travel company called Hidden Places and are co-writing a book based on their experiences with elephants.

Decoding the elephant

In his exhibition, the ‘Elephant Enigma’, Dag brings alive the world’s largest mammal in all its magnificence. Life-like photographs and nuggets of facts blend aesthetically to offer an insight into the world of elephants. “It is an attempt to straddle the artistic and the scientific,” Dag says.

The photographs have been projected on thin fabric, which has a dramatic effect when light and breeze interact with them. “The idea here is to remind you of the elephant. Alive and moving ,” Dag says. Most of the photographs have been shot at Thailand and Laos.

On December 14, a multimedia presentation, ‘Elephant Earth—Into the World of Giants’, would be held by Dag and Maria at David Hall. Talks by Dr. Easa from the Kerala Forest Department and Mr. Sreedhar, too will be held. Timing: 4 p.m. - 7 p.m. The exhibition will be on till December 15. The “wandering” exhibition will go next to Bangalore.