Conventional methods of training captive elephants involve pain and punishment and often border on brutality, leading to bouts of violence by the animal, with disastrous effect. An alternative system of training that makes the animal respond to application and release of pressure on particular points of its body was highlighted at a workshop organised by the Forest Department, in association with the Wildlife Trust of India, here on Wednesday. Explaining the Positive Learning Method, Australian animal trainer Andrew McLean said it was based on capturing the elephant's motivations and rewarding correct responses. Science, he said, offered a toolbox that could be used to teach elephants in a faster and safer way than conventional methods.

More carrot, no stick

The alternative method developed by Mr. McLean and demonstrated on captive elephants in Nepal, has three elements, namely habituation to get the animal used to something, positive reinforcement like food or a caress for a correct response and negative reinforcement like releasing pressure from a ‘cringing site' or sensitive point on its body.

Wiping off fear

Explaining the third element with the help of video clippings about the training sessions in Nepal, Mr. McLean said releasing the pressure at the correct time was crucial to the success of the technique. “The elephant slowly learns to associate its response to a command with relief rather than pain. However, the wrong use of pressure could result in aggression.”

Describing the drawbacks of the conventional method, he said, “Fearful animals do not learn or try new things. Memories associated with fear are never forgotten.”

One-year-old trainees

He advocates training elephants from the age of one. “Trainers should realise that elephants are smart but they do not reason at the same level as humans.” Mr. McLean said the new method could also be used to manage elephants that have been trained in the conventional way.

Owners' response

Presiding over the workshop, K.B. Ganeshkumar, MLA, who is also the president of the Elephant Owners' Association stressed the need for scientific training of elephants and mahouts. He urged the Forest Department to establish a permanent training centre in Kerala and introduce a licensing system for mahouts. Mr. Ganeshkumar said the association was prepared to adopt a more humane and scientific approach to training elephants. He suggested a practical workshop to demonstrate the alternative training system developed by Mr. McLean.

Chief Conservator of Forests (Biodiversity) B.S.Corrie said the incidents of elephants running amok in Kerala represented the deterioration of the bond between man and animal. N.V.K Ashraf, director, Wild Rescue Programme, WTI said traditional methods of training continued to thrive for lack of awareness about the availability of alternative techniques.