By Niranjan Kaggere
Magaret Whittaker, renowned animal behaviourist, spent three days with mahouts at Bannerghatta park to deliver this message — win elephants over with love.
BANGALORE For an animal that is long on memory and short on sight, elephants can be very intimidating — just for their sheer size. Even lions, the king of beasts, give pachyderms a wide berth in the wild, and yet, humans have managed to subject them to captivity and train them to perform a number of tasks from hauling logs to kicking footballs.
It is the teaching part that has fascinated Margaret Whittaker, the internationallyrenowned animal behaviourist and trainer. US-based Whittaker, who has trained mahouts in Africa, China, Vietnam and the US, was at Bannerghatta Biological Park (BBP) on a three-day training and interactive trip earlier this month.
Whittaker was specially invited by BBP and Dr Manilal Valliyate, director, veterinary affairs, People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to train mahouts taking care of 15-year-old Sundar, who was rescued from a temple in Kolhapur, Maharashtra a few months ago. She also interacted with more than 20 mahouts and kavadis who take care of 14 other elephants at the park.
Whittaker, on her first trip to the country, was a little surprised and taken aback by the way Indian mahouts handle elephants. "Traditionally, mahouts in India beat or punish elephants if they do not obey their commands," Valliyate, who had helped rescue Sundar, told Mirror.
"Some even pierce or jab elephants with a spear, often injuring them. But Whittaker's technique is very different and is built on mutual trust," she added.
Whittaker's message to mahouts and kavadis was to win over elephants with love.
Hailed as the proponent of Positive Reenforcement Training (PRT), Whittaker has carried out extensive studies on elephants and other animals through her methods which provide equal opportunity to both animal and its caretaker. Neither dominates the other. It is this technique that Whittaker, through videos, pictures and case studies, had attempted to pass on to mahouts at BBP.
"Whittaker's PRT technique is nothing but a way of modifying the behaviour of the animal to gain its trust," Valliyate said. "At first, the elephant is rewarded, perhaps with its favourite fruit or vegetable, every time it obeys the mahout's command. It is a process that allows the animal to choose to cooperate based on earning something desirable; there are no aversive consequences associated with this type of training. It is an excellent way to build trust," he added.
Both elephant and mahout are par with neither dominating the other. "As long as you do not dominate or intrude into its space, the animal will cooperate with you," Valliyate said, adding, "The moment you start dominating, chances are that it will rebel against you."
Whittaker had also suggested various measures to keep elephants happy, healthy and obedient. Allowing elephants to eat what they want is important, she had said, as is allowing them to roam free. "They may not listen to the mahout if they are kept chained or confined to a cage," Valliyate said.
Whittaker, though, was impressed with the facilities for animals at BBP and the com mitment and care mahouts showed for their massive 'wards'. "Mahouts are sensible and adopt the common forms of commands to communicate with elephants," Valliyate said. "Whittaker was moved by their commitment and love towards the animals. They were open to new techniques of handling animals. Besides, BBP looked like any natural forest with water bodies, sufficient natural fodder for elephants and enough space for them to forage," she said.
Following the CZA's order banning zoos from keeping elephants on its premises, BBP has been planning to set up an Elephant Rescue Camp housing all 15 elephants on a 49.5- hectare plot. All the elephants , including Sundar, will be allowed to roam free, Range Gowda, BBP executive director, said.