An international team of researchers from Finland, Myanmar, and France has studied a timber elephant population in Myanmar and discovered that Asian elephants perform better at a task when they are commanded by a handler they have known for a longer time, the University of Turku writes in this press release.
Working animals, such as horses, military and sheepdogs, or logging and tourism elephants, spend hours each day in close contact with humans and require training to understand commands and fulfill specific tasks. Training can last from several months to years depending on the species, the training methods, and the tasks required. The ability to work in different situations is important for the safety of working animals and humans alike.
The research team consisted of researchers from the University of Turku, Finland, the University Sorbonne Paris Nord, France, the University of Tours, France, and from the Myanma Timber Enterprise, Myanmar. The researchers studied 52 elephants from a semi-captive population of Asian elephants employed in the logging industry by the Myanma Timber Enterprise.
“We found that when novelty is involved in a working context, the elephant’s familiarity with its handler can affect their willingness to cooperate: elephants who had worked with their mahout, or elephant handler, for over a year performed better in a new work task than those elephants who had a shorter relationship with their handler. This difference does not appear when there was no novelty involved, says the Doctoral Candidate and the lead author of the study Océane Liehrmann from the Department of Biology at the University of Turku.
“The elephant and his mahout develop a working relationship that traditionally lasted for a lifetime. However, the mahout profession and culture are threatened nowadays with many mahouts leaving for more profitable and less demanding jobs in city industries, says Doctoral Candidate Jennie Crawley, who participated in the study.
Today, elephants often face frequent changes of mahouts, and mahouts are younger and lack experience. Therefore, it is important to understand the mechanisms governing the mahout-elephant relationship and to investigate how the frequent mahout changes affect the quality of their interactions.
Read the full press release and more on the study here.